Courageous in its brutally honest approach to rehabilitation and survival in a superficial world, DIRTY GOD marks a high point for inclusivity. Director Sacha Polak and co-writer Susie Farrell have crafted an admirable tale of resilience alongside an actor intrinsically linked to its protagonist’s pain.
The film charts the healing process of young mother Jade (Vicky Knight) and her attempt to re-adjust to normal life after suffering a harrowing acid attack at the hands of her former boyfriend. Juggling motherhood with employment and the desire to return to her active social life, Jade is presented with numerous obstacles to face. Real-life burn victim Knight makes a strong acting debut as she infuses her own anger and insecurities into a complex and undeniably flawed character. In furthering the legitimacy of her portrayal, Jade suffers from the same abusive comments Knight was confronted with, referred to as a ‘monster’. This notion of monsters is a compelling motif which DIRTY GOD utilises to imaginative effect without ever straying into exploitation.
“In the 1930s FRANKENSTEIN classics, what society deemed a monster was really a lost, naïve – albeit flawed – soul. This is a theme deeply recognised and celebrated here.”
While neither Jade nor Knight deserves this cruel label, it is a very real and saddening reaction from many people, especially unaware adolescents. Yet if you were to take the very literal meaning, the best cinematic monsters are the ones we empathise with – their loneliness, and them being attacked simply for being different. In the 1930s FRANKENSTEIN classics, what society deemed a monster was really a lost, naïve – albeit flawed – soul. This is a theme deeply recognised and celebrated here. Following his brilliant work on the likes of RAW, cinematographer Ruben Impens illustrates the bravery and dignity in accepting scars and displaying them as a badge of honour.
The film opens on extreme close-ups of Jade’s injuries in unflinching detail, immediately informing the viewer to the type of film DIRTY GOD is. When Jade rides the ghost train at a local carnival, Impens and Polak transform a simple ride into a beguiling world. As spectres lunge out in the dark, flashing lights illuminate Jade’s face as she flickers through various states: happy, tentative, mesmerised. Together with brief, nightmarish visions of her ex as a demonic figure, these visuals help metaphorise society as Jade discovers who the real monster is and emerges with a new understanding of herself. She must persevere to find her place in an often cruel and taunting world.
“…visuals help metaphorise society as Jade discovers who the real monster is and emerges with a new understanding of herself. She must persevere to find her place in an often cruel and taunting world.”
However, Jade is definitely no saint. Questions arise of her suitability as a mother, with her infant daughter trapped amidst a tense family conflict. Jade is still young and immature, struggling through her new job at a call centre and only showing her child sporadic moments of attention. She also suffers from PTSD, making her unpredictable, and can be selfish at times. Her friends and family are loving and blind. In acting as if everything can return to normal, they are ignorant of the serious problems Jade is facing. Her trauma is swept under the rug when her friends take her out clubbing, unwilling to dig deeper into issues they cannot fully comprehend. When she’s not busy selling stolen clothes, her mother, Lisa (Katherine Kelly), acknowledges these problems yet betrays Jade’s confidence by allowing her baby to spend time with the relatives of the man who committed such a horrific crime. The characters rarely make sound decisions, caught up in a situation they have no idea how to handle.
At 104 minutes, the story does feel strangely stretched at times, with a pacing problem in the third act trip to Morocco. The script meanders slightly, with an inevitable love triangle arising between Jade and her friends Shami (Rebecca Stone) and Naz (Bluey Robinson). This plot thread thankfully avoids a typical resolution but it takes time away from more pressing points raised late into the story regarding Jade and Lisa’s respective careers. The ending feels rushed, doing its best to quickly wrap things up on a mostly uplifting note without properly addressing a few issues.
Despite these weaknesses, DIRTY GOD remains an impressive debut not only for Knight but also as Polak’s first English-language feature. It is an honest and complex piece which goes a long way to fighting the stigma surrounding bodily scars and tackling the monster/victim narrative.