Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll…and lots and lots of blood — That’s the antidote, and curse, for an artist with painter’s block in Bliss, the third and best film from writer/director Joe Begos (Almost Human, The Mind’s Eye). It feels intensely personal for the filmmaker and is an explosion of raw, pulsating energy from beginning to end. The tone is dark; the pervasive strobes are colorful; and there’s a lot of mad fun to be derived from such a pure display of imagination and gruesome grindhouse sensibilities.
The metaphor of various hallucinogens and a homicide jumpstarting the manic creative process is a thin one and not necessarily original, but at a streamlined 80 minutes, Bliss doesn’t complicate its narrative with extraneous plot threads or explanations. It’s a sleazy, gory, full-speed-ahead acid-trip of a movie with a 16mm sheen and reckless punk vibe. The talented-yet-struggling artist is Dezzy (Dora Madison), who’s having trouble completing a hellscape canvas for a client. Due to a lack of output and commissions, she’s been dropped by her agent and threatened with eviction.
Turning to the comforts of drugs, alcohol and a wild threesome, Dezzy awakens hungover but renewed, (literally) throwing paint around and filling in her canvas with gorgeous, bleak work. The “bliss” from her dealer (a gloriously mutton-chopped Graham Skipper) isn’t enough to continue to fuel her work, however. There’s a new, more intense craving for blood that must be quenched to stave off sickness and complete the masterpiece.
This penetrating need to create or complete something is relatable on a base level, and as Begos ratchets up Dezzy’s cravings and their consequences to insane degrees, he places us right with her on her insane journey through L.A.’s seedy side. It’s a unique depiction of the fringes of this city, with dive bars and all-night ragers highlighted by reds and purples, everything layered with a haze that feels more drug-induced murk than city smog.
The downtown skyline as seen from Dezzy’s loft is way off on the horizon and may as well be a different planet. Abel Ferrara was noted as an influence for Begos, and this Los Angeles feels similar to the New York of Ferrara’s The Driller Killer or William Lustig’s Maniac.
The griminess creeps from the screen, and Madison is a committed guide through the muck. Other characters weave in and out of Dezzy’s trip, including congenial-enough boyfriend Clive (Jeremy Gardner) and crazy pal Courtney (Tru Collins), but this is Madison’s show and she’s hypnotic. Though quieter performance moments can be a bit wobbly when reciting some of the script’s more forced notes of edginess, the lead hits a perfect balance between intriguing and objectionable, adding to Bliss’s psychedelic charms.
Ultra-grisly practical effects are impressive in their execution, another compelling mixture of art and violence. It’s a volatile combination of compulsion and creativity that drives Bliss, and while the film has some things on its mind regarding addiction and artistry, it’s the experience that matters. The homemade, dangerous anything-can-happen atmosphere is bludgeoning and also an absolute blast.