February 27, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Paul Solet
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramatic film “Clean” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.
Culture Clash: A man with a shady past tries to be an upstanding person, and he finds himself lured back into a criminal lifestyle to save a teenage girl he has befriended.
Culture Audience: “Clean” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of star Adrien Brody and to anyone who doesn’t mind watching a monotonous crime drama that’s plagued with too many predictable clichés, some of which are borderline racially offensive.
“Clean” is the title of this dreadful crime drama, but it’s not how to describe this movie’s messy and clunky story that’s a weird mix of low-quality and pretentious. It’s a misguided Adrien Brody vanity project that wants to have a lot of social commentary, but in fact says and does nothing that’s innovative or meaningful. And to top it all off, “Clean” is a very boring movie, where the actors just go through the motions, and everything is directed in a lackluster and generic way.
Brody not only stars in “Clean,” but he also co-wrote the movie’s screenplay (with director Paul Solet) and composed the movie’s musical score. Brody and Solet are two of the producers of “Clean,” which means they sunk money into this embarrassing dud of a movie. There’s a tone-deafness to how “Clean” seems to want to make an important statement about urban decay, but then the movie wallows in the same old tired stereotypes of hollow and forgettable gangsters getting into power struggle fights.
“Clean” is also racially condescending in how it depicts African Americans who live in financially deprived urban areas as being in need of saving by white people, with the movie presenting the “chief savior” as a white man. But to try and make the movie look “edgy,” this “white savior” has a shady past and is a supposedly reformed criminal who’s trying to get his life back on track when he becomes a vigilante. This movie is so on-the-nose cringeworthy that the name of this anti-hero who wants to clean up the neighborhood is named Clean, the character portrayed by Brody. No one ever says if Clean is this character’s first or last name.
In the production notes for “Clean,” Brody makes this statement: “I grew up in New York City. From a young age I was struck by the impact of poverty, drugs and violence afflicting those around me. Although the city has changed, I am still troubled by the prevalence of these problems today that plague our outer boroughs, our upstate rural communities and small towns, as well as many other parts of our country.”
Brody’s statement continues, “As an artist, my work has been shaped by this awareness. I long to tell stories that represent those who are striving to overcome the world’s brutality. ‘Clean’ came about as a tribute to the fearlessness of those, who, in spite of pain, loss and regret, fight to hold on to their humanity and transcend the obstacles they face.”
Apparently, the “Clean” filmmakers’ idea of a “tribute” means doing a dull movie that basically just shows gang violence and the chief villain being a white racist gang leader, who’s headed for a showdown with the movie’s anti-hero, who’s trying to be a vigilante. That’s essentially what “Clean” is about, with a lot of filler showing a brooding Clean attempting to be a father figure to an African American teenage girl and then inserting himself into the violence or causing the violence in formulaic fight scenes. It’s all so lazy and trite.
You know you’re in for a horrendous slog from the movie’s opening scene, where Clean gives a monologue in voiceover as he wanders through the depressing-looking streets of his town in whatever vehicle he happens to be driving. (The movie takes place in an unnamed U.S. city. “Clean” was actually filmed in upstate New York.) Here’s what Clean says in this self-pitying rant: “I’m still looking for answers. I don’t know what the answers are anymore. I just know there’s too much out there. A sea of filth. An endless onslaught of ugliness.”
Clean than goes on to ramble about “sheep shit clogging up our minds, clogging the drains, poisoning our water, turning us to shit. Where does it all go? I’ve got blood on my hands. I’m stained. I’m dirty. No matter how hard I try, I can’t wash away the past.” Get used to more of this tripe, because the movie is full of it.
The movie soon shows that Clean is a recovering drug addict. He goes to support group meetings that include his sponsor Travis (played by Mykelti Williamson), who describes himself as a “pill addict.” Travis also happens to be Clean’s barber and the closest person whom Clean (who’s a loner) can consider to be a friend/confidant. You know where this movie is going as soon as Clean says in one of his voiceover monologues: “A rush of violence is better than dope.”
Clean works in sanitation as a garbage collector, but he makes some money on the side selling items at a pawn shop. An early scene in the movie shows him going into a pawn shop to sell a somewhat rare Electrolux vacuum cleaner, which is in good working condition. There’s really no purpose to these brief pawn-shop scenes except to show that the movie has rapper/actor/filmmaker RZA (of Wu-Tang Clan fame) in a cameo role, as Kurtis, the pawn shop’s owner or manager.
In Clean’s spare time, he paints over graffiti in the neighborhood, so he can look like a model citizen. He also looks out for an African American student named Dianda (played by Chandler DuPont, also known as Chandler Ari DuPont), who’s about 14 or 15 years old. An early scene in the shows Clean driving by Dianda’s house, when he sees her sitting on the porch in the snowy cold. Dianda tells Clean that she accidentally left her keys inside and no one is home. Clean offers her a fish sandwich to eat, and her treats her to a meal at a diner.
In a racially condescending movie filled with negative stereotypes of African Americans, it should come as no surprise that “Clean” has made Dianda a girl who’s “at-risk” (as in “at risk of going into a life of crime”) because she lives in a single-parent, working-class household with no father figure. Her guardian is her single grandmother Ethel (played by Michelle Wilson), because Dianda’s parents died in a car accident. Ethel and Dianda live in a crime-ridden area with run-down houses, because a racially insulting movie like “Clean” doesn’t want to show any African Americans in significant speaking roles unless they represent poverty, crime or drugs.
Even though Clean is financially struggling, the idea that he has to bring food to Dianda is the movie’s not-so-subtle way of showing that Clean must think that Dianda isn’t getting properly fed on a regular basis. He brings her food or takes her out for meals, as if she’s some kind of charity case. Ethel tells Clean, “We don’t need anyone to save us,” and he replies, “I’m just trying to save myself,” but he still tries to be the family’s “white savior” anyway.
It’s not as simple as Clean just wanting to be a “nice guy.” He’s haunted by the death of his own biracial/African American daughter Rheya (played in flashback scenes by Victory Brinker), who died when she was about 5 or 6 years old. The movie shows Clean having dreams about Rheya, where he wakes up distressed because he knows why she’s dead. There’s some selfish motivation for Clean’s interest in Dianda: He’s using Dianda as some kind of therapeutic way to ease his guilt over Rheya’s death.
The movie eventually reveals why Rheya died. Why she died is exactly what you think, considering that Clean keeps talking about his criminal past in his self-indulgent monologues. Predictably, since the movie only cares about Clean’s thoughts and feelings, there’s no real importance given to Rheya’s mother or other family members who might have been affected by the tragic death of this child.
One of the more unrealistic aspects of “Clean” is how the movie—which rolls around in a lot of muck about gangster violence and people being “street smart”—doesn’t show anyone being concerned that Clean (a man in his 40s) wants to hang out so much with a teenage girl who’s not related to him. The movie never mentions how long Clean has known Dianda. It’s all very creepy. But if anyone raised those red flags, it would ruin the filmmakers’ narrative of Clean being the “hero” and “savior” of the story.
The negative stereotypes about African Americans continue. There are some African American gangsters who cross paths with Dianda. And because she’s an “at-risk” young person, the movie makes it look like she could be recruited for the gang’s crimes. It should come as no surprise that at some point in the movie, Dianda ends up in a gangster house of drug activity, and she’s about to be raped. But guess who comes to the rescue, just in the nick of time? (It’s not spoiler information because it’s in the movie’s trailer.)
At another point in the movie, Clean takes on a white crime lord named Michael (played by Glen Fleshler), who’s a drug smuggler. Michael owns a business in town called Kossuth Fish Market, which is really a front for his drug trade. Michael and his henchmen smuggle drugs in fish that go through the market.
Michael’s only child is a son named Mikey (played by Richie Merritt), who’s in his late teens or early 20s. Michael is grooming his son to be a gangster and to eventually take over the drug smuggling business. Viewers first see Mikey when he’s gotten out of prison for an unnamed crime. Michael and some of his thugs are waiting outside in a car to give Mikey a ride home, since he still lives with his parents.
Instead of having a happy family reunion, Michael is furious because when Mikey exits the prison gates, Mikey is greeted by two African American friends, who are involved in a local gang. Mikey and these two pals seem to have a close relationship. And that doesn’t sit well with Michael, who’s a hardcore racist.
In case it isn’t clear that Michael is a racist, he uses the “n” word to describe black people. Not surprisingly, Mikey catches hell from Michael just because Mikey has friends who aren’t white. It bothers Michael more that his son has friends of another race than the fact these these friends are involved in criminal activities too.
Later in the movie, Michael and his goons give a vicious beatdown to some Chinese middlemen who are Michael’s connections in smuggling heroin into the fish market. The reason for this assault is that these middlemen (who import heroin from Asia) are suspected of stealing five bags of heroin that have gone missing.
These accused cohorts also operate a business called Ho Bros. Seafood, as a front for their drug dealing. Not everyone makes it out alive during this assault, which happens in broad daylight in front of Kossuth Fish Market, which is on a street lined with other businesses. It’s as if the “Clean” filmmakers think that the audience wouldn’t notice how dumb it is to commit this crime where there could be plenty of witnesses.
For reasons shown in the movie (but won’t be revealed in this review), the worlds of Clean, the African American gang and the white gang all collide. And you know what that means: mindless shootouts and fight scenes, with Clean being an army of one against his enemies. And don’t think that Dianda and her grandmother Ethel remain unscathed, because they get dragged into this mess. Viewers of “Clean” will feel like they got dragged into a horrific cinematic mess if they watch this junkpile movie until the very idiotic end.
IFC Films released “Clean” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 28, 2022.