Dirty God (2019) opens with a slow pan over a body of burned flesh. The sinewy, drum–tight skin looks like a tapestry in the warm morning light, so gorgeous that it becomes textural. Several minutes pass before we see a face, the face of the disembodied figure we’ve been scrutinizing.
At once, we meet Jade (Vicky Knight), a young woman staring despondently into the corner of the room, her visage reflected in the glass of a hospital window. We can neither see her face nor what she is staring at. But such is the purpose of Dirty God; it is a movie about the idea of looking back, of reciprocating a gaze, of viewing something with power or purpose. Perhaps that is where the film becomes frustrating, as it’s never quite clear what Jade is looking at.
Dirty God is director Sacha Polak’s English–language debut, which hit screens at Sundance and Rotterdam film festivals almost concurrently. It’s the first Dutch–helmed film to hit the World Dramatic Competition at Sundance, in a festival year that made an especially active effort to seek out international submissions. It’s a simple movie, brutal in its dialogue and sludgy in its aesthetic.
Dirty God takes an icy look at the aftermath of a brutal acid attack on a single mother named Jade who is raising the daughter of the very man who disfigured her. She lives with her mom, who shoplifts and resells clothes for a living in a cramped flat in the London Borough of Hackney.
In the aftermath of the attack, Jade struggles to balance her recovery, motherhood, and desire to show her face in public. Her own daughter cries when she looks at her, strangers deride her appearance, and she becomes obsessed with financing a cosmetic surgery in Morocco. Despite protests from her physician fresh out of the hospital, Jade looks for solace in strobe–lit clubs, her burned face painted up with makeup and obscured in the darkness.
At its core, Dirty God interrogates the inherent dependent relationship between female success and beauty. It is about an image–based culture that forces women to make their appearances into salable products, for love, for money, and even for worth. The film is admirable in tackling these thorny issues, though it often does so with too much literalness.
In one such scene, Jade sits in her bed on the verge of tears as she looks at a Google image search of “model pics.” She later signs up to be a webcam model, and watches as aroused men recoil in disgust when she reveals her scarring. She finds herself in situations where all of her worth as a woman rests on her being visually desirable, only to find that she is worthless currency.
Dirty God is a frustrating film at many turns. The audience is never privy to Jade's inner life, never given any glimpse of a motivation that would help them understand her actions. The film’s bleak subject matter invites sympathetic identification, though Jade’s increasingly irrational behavior only distances the viewer from pitying her. When she runs off in the rain with her own daughter, refuses the help extended to her, and steals from her mom, the viewer’s small stake in her as a character starts to slip away. She is both fire and gasoline, and her rock bottom begins to feel self–inflicted.
Dirty God has heavy–handed motifs (Jade going through a "monster house" with her friend) and touches of magical realism that fail as surrealist interruptions. The film’s real saving grace is its cinematography, at once close–up and panoramic, which seems to channel and transmit the gray griminess of her South London environs onto the screen.
And as Jade, Knight offers a forceful performance in her first film. The film's descending action presents some heartbreaking lows that attempt to bridge the cold actor–viewer distance, though it culminates in a crescendo of optimism that seems entirely undeserved.
Dirty God stares into the abyss of total self–destruction and ends up not liking what it sees. A simple heartwarming recovery story would have been far too easy to make, but this film seems to settle on being an ineffectual hybrid between hopefulness and nihilism.