Shia LaBeouf wants to become a director. In the meantime, he's steadily become that actor no one will admit to liking -- with a history of homewrecking, barfighting, and "bizzare, water-spitting meltdowns" that make judging his work a hairy proposition. Take his latest directorial project, "Maniac," starring Kid Cudi. It's possible we're blinded by the downfall of our once-favorite Disney kid, and "Maniac" -- which is disturbing to be sure -- is neither unimaginative nor needlessly violent, as we found it to be. Certainly, we might have forgiven those flaws more easily if Shia wasn't such a water-spitter these days. But then he is, and perhaps, we're thinking, the one problem is connected to the other.
In the short, a documentary team follows two serial killers (Cudi and Chris Palko, aka Cage) through the snowy streets of some French-speaking locale as they kill off a pre-prescribed number of victims. The camera work isn't half-bad, and neither is the music, which is scored by Cudi. But there's no reason given for why we should care about anything going on -- the violence, the goal-setting, the instinct to document. It's basically a condensed, not as good version of the Belgian faux documentary "Man Bites Dog," about a remorseless serial killer who's (surprise) being filmed by a documentary crew -- down to Cudi and Palko speaking French (even "Maniac"s credits are in French, though it says it was filmed in Michigan). In "Man Bites Dog," the narrative arc is both dark and provocative, with the camera crew turning casually murderous themselves. In LaBeouf's CliffsNotes version, nothing changes. The murderers keep killing and the cameramen keep filming, until a "twist" ending that still leads to nowhere. It's static and thoughtless and violent, like Shia LaBeouf on a night out.
That said, there's a basic competency on display that's not unpromising, one LaBeouf showed in his video for Marilyn Manson and his previous collaboration with Kid Cudi, the music video "Marijuana." In all three, LaBeouf goes for ambitious artistry (with light that looks water-filtered, and quick takes that still show some action) and little-to-no-narrative beyond bland shocks (smoking weed, killing people, being Marilyn Manson), a sign that he may just need more time. "Marijuana" was inspired by a trip the two bros took to Amsterdam, not far from "Man Bites Dog" territory. Here's hoping LaBeouf matures enough to harness the talent he clearly has for his next inevitable movie, and doesn't just dumb down "The Seven Samurai" after watching it high in Japan.
WATCH "Maniac" (NSFW for reasons of violence):
WATCH disturbing done right in "Man Bites Dog":