The deeply strange Neil Breen returns with an even more deeply strange entry in his filmography of homespun, barely-coherent 'psychological thrillers.'
One doesn’t review a Neil Breen movie so much as ponder its existence. It’s not even a question of how it got made—we know it was financed by both a Kickstarter campaign and Breen’s day job as a Las Vegas architect/real estate agent. He’s his own production company, and virtually his entire crew is himself, with only a few assistants who often double as cast members at the same time. It’s easy to do whatever you want if you make sure that no one is around to tell you that you can’t.
Breen’s fifth movie, Twisted Pair, is perhaps his most fascinating. That’s not because of the plot or any other reason we normally watch movies, but because, more than a decade and five films into his secondary career, he seems more determined than ever to maintain his singular vision of what a movie should look like. He’s learned nothing in his journey from amateur to cult auteur – or if he has, refuses to apply it. One suspects that if he was given $20 million to make a movie, it would still look like it had been shot on a budget of $500 and some McDonald’s coupons. And it would still feature the same baffling hippie-Libertarian message about bringing about world peace by murdering the shit out of a lot of people.
In Twisted Pair, Breen plays Cade and Cale, twin brothers who, thanks to a mysterious otherworldly being called “the Force” (no, not that Force, the other one), have evolved into super-intelligent and powerful “humanoids.” Cade, the good twin, uses his powers to save humanity from terrorism, while Cale, the bad twin (who has the facial hair to prove it), uses his powers to kidnap, torture, and murder corrupt businessmen. And…well, that’s it. A half hour of plot is stretched to ninety minutes with slow pans, extended exterior shots, stock footage, random scenes that seem to have been edited in from other movies, and scenes where Breen is just sitting there doing nothing. Several of these are played more than once.
What little plot exists is incoherent, and while I would normally admit if a movie goes over my head (ask me how many times I’ve tried to watch Richard Linklater’s Waking Life), I don’t think I’m the problem here. I don’t think Breen himself understands what’s happening in his own movie, or, at least, what kind of movie he wants it to be. He drops phrases like “artificial intelligence” and “programmable virtual reality,” and they don’t have any meaning or bearing on the plot. Though he describes Twisted Pair in publicity material as a “psychological thriller,” it is most definitely not that. What it does have are some elements of science fiction, a murder mystery, espionage, romance, and even a touch of domestic drama, but none of it is cohesive, and none of it goes anywhere. They’re all their own little mini-plots, like Short Cuts if it was made by an alien who only had a rudimentary grasp of English.
Breen is often compared to Tommy Wiseau, another DIY filmmaker who, in true American pop culture fashion, has achieved fame through utter incompetence. That’s not entirely fair. For all Wiseau’s flaws as a director/screenwriter/actor/editor/etc. (and saying that inaccurately suggests he has any strengths), it’s obvious that he loves movies. He’s watched movies, and has attempted to incorporate certain shots, stylistic touches, and even bits of dialogue that have made an impression him into his own work. He hasn’t done it successfully, but he’s at least tried.
On the other hand, I don’t know that Neil Breen has ever seen a movie. Assuming this isn’t all some huge, strange joke he’s playing on audiences, Breen’s knowledge of film goes no further than perhaps accidentally wandering onto a movie set one day, then deciding, “This looks like fun, maybe I’ll try it,” without really understanding what “it” means, and how it works. His technical ability is limited to knowing how to move a camera from right to left and back again. Even though he films on video and can do as many takes as he wants, it doesn’t appear that he ever redoes a shot, as evidenced by the fact that no one fixes the extremely visible scotch tape holding down a Twisted Pair cast member’s fake mustache (this cast member later appears as a different character later, still wearing the same mustache, still taped down). He has no sense of plot structure or pacing, and reportedly doesn’t use scripts, resulting in several scenes in which characters utter a few lines of dialogue, then just look off into the middle distance, as if they’re waiting for the next line to come to them organically.
Even his budget-saving shortcuts, such as copying and pasting the same three actors to make it look like a room is full of people, and shooting at night at an empty community college, are clumsy and obvious. But clearly, Breen is fine with that. There’s a seed of something interesting planted here – the villain looks like a dollar store Elvis Costello, carries a bowl of diamonds around, and talks like his voice is being disguised on an episode of Dateline NBC. Unfortunately, time that could have been spent developing this character, or at least explaining who he is and what motivates him (and why his scarf keeps changing colors), is wasted on long scenes of Breen indifferently creeping around in an empty laboratory. There, he looks for biological warfare plans by picking up and putting back down random empty bottles and peering at a whiteboard with a shopping list of lab supplies written on it, as if it’s some indecipherable code. Thank goodness for that – otherwise he might have almost had something that looks like an actual movie.
You probably know at least one person who has tried to sell you on the idea that Neil Breen is a secret genius. I implore you, do not fall for this “hot take” nonsense. Just because his movies are inscrutable and wholly unique doesn’t mean that he’s living in 3018 while the rest of us are stuck in 2018. The phrase “outsider art” can’t really be applied to what he does either, because “outsider art,” in its most basic terms, is art made by people who are largely self-taught, and have little to no interest in being recognized for their work. Besides the fact that he clearly wants recognition for his work, again, five movies later and Breen hasn’t learned a single thing about filmmaking. If anything, there’s a decline in competence between Fateful Findings and Twisted Pair, with a much heavier reliance on stock footage, and a supporting cast that looks like they were recruited from a continental breakfast bar at a LaQuinta Inn.
If you do watch Twisted Pair – and you should, for no other reason than there are two scenes in which Breen is green-screened over footage of an eagle – don’t do it because you think you appreciate Neil Breen on a deeper level, or that there’s some hidden meaning to his work that you’ll find before anyone else. Watch it for inspiration. Here’s a filmmaker who calls “cut” on a scene and puts it immediately to print without looking at it. Who takes suggestions, advice, and criticisms about his movies and blithely tosses them aside like a candy wrapper. Breen does it completely on his own, right down to the on-set catering. There’s a mad bravery in that. Imagine what you could accomplish if there was no one telling you that you’re doing it wrong.
Twisted Pair is currently invading your dreams and zooming around community college atria with the power of After Effects in select arthouse theaters near you, including Chicago’s very own Music Box Theatre.