Drama Releases: Dirty God (2019) - Reviewed

The first images we see are of scars. This is Jade. Her face, neck, chest and arms were horribly burned when her boyfriend dumped acid on her. After multiple surgeries and an extended hospital stay, she is sent home to her mother and baby daughter. The drama Dirty God watches without judgment as Jade attempts to figure out how to keep going after such a traumatic incident.

It is very slow-paced, largely plotless and features a protagonist who is pushed toward anger by the feeling that her world doesn’t have a place for someone who looks the way she does now. It has something to say about male-female relationships, domestic violence and, especially, our culture’s obsession with physical appearance above all else. Dirty God is certainly not an easy watch. It is perhaps a little too slow in the middle section and the ending is not quite as powerful as the filmmakers were likely going for. However, this is still a rewarding viewing experience, moving and thought-provoking.

Director/cowriter Sacha Polak has crafted a story about a woman who looks at the life she used to live, seeing only mockery and disgust. The tone is set at the beginning when her daughter cannot look at her without crying. That is followed by either stares or insults from strangers. She is desperate to once again be the person she used to be. Polak shows us Jade’s life, uncomplicated by manufactured drama or subplots; she goes out with her friends, fights with her Mom, has virtual sexual encounters and gets a crappy job so she can earn money for extensive plastic surgery.

Jade is played by Vicky Knight, a first-time actress who really does have scarring from being caught in a fire when she was eight. This is not autobiographical. She is playing a fictional character. She gives an honest, raw, performance. Nothing she does feels forced or “acted.” She is not good only because she can relate to Jade; she is good because of how effectively she lets us see the damage the attack had on her emotionally. The sadness in her eyes when she is insulted, the fear that no one will ever love her unless she looks “normal,” this stuff is conveyed wonderfully through gestures and facial expressions. Polak smartly didn’t saddle her star with big speeches or breakdowns. This is a subtle and nuanced portrait. That approach lends Dirty God a realism which gives it a lot of its impact.

Polak follows her to clubs, a carnival, her depressing phone service job, then back home, all with a clear eye for how Jade sees her current situation. It is usually dark when she is out with her friends (even in the club), making her seem slightly less anxious, if still self-conscious. At work, with the bright lights, white interior and close proximity to coworkers, she is exposed. Home is, in some ways, the worst of both worlds.

Polak suggests these things with lighting choices and how close the camera gets to the characters at a given time. It reminded me of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, also about a young English woman struggling with sudden changes in her life. The stories are otherwise entirely different, but the way the movies focus on their subjects, so intensely it begins to feel intimate, is similar.

Dirty God has moments where it seems aimless and maybe has a few too many scenes of Jade looking longingly at her best friend and her boyfriend. Yet its strengths overwhelm its flaws. By giving us an interesting protagonist and telling her story so single-mindedly, its pace and lack of plot become a feature instead of a bug. This is the story of a woman trying to get comfortable in her own skin again. In Polak and Knight’s hands, it turns into a very compelling personal journey.

--Ben Pivoz