Conviction to craft helps Jewish actor Adrien Brody elevate his latest film

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Dan Buffa, Special For The Jewish Light

The trash truck that Adrien Brody drives in his new movie “Clean,” may read “bliss,” but the garbage man inside of it is anything but swell. When he’s not taking out the trash in the morning or caring for his nearby neighbor’s niece, Clean is a walking relic: someone whose guilt has completely overrode his system. What made him this way? The audience isn’t quite sure at first, but the answers taking their time here isn’t a bad thing.

Named after its lead character, “Clean” is the kind of movie that is both literal and brutal without being in much of a hurry. It doesn’t hide much from the viewer, only filling in the backstory as we get comfortable with our dark knight. Played stoically with an occasional smile by Jewish actor Adrien Brody, Clean is the keeper of the streets in this small upstate New York town, the kind that has dirty cops and lots of unplowed snow laying around; the tone matching the drapes of the characters.

Brody’s trash man tries to live a quiet life, but we know how that goes in these tales. He is lured back in by an unforced connection to a local mobster (Glenn Fleshler, gleefully chewing scenery), the path takes him down the avenue of violence that he left behind years ago. What we don’t know about Clean won’t harm us, only the mobster and any others who get in the way of him and his quiet life. The rest of the events in the movie are best enjoyed if you aren’t ready for them. It’s not that you don’t know what will happen; it’s the “how” and “why” that stands taller in this movie.

The Mystery

The mystery in “Clean,” applied extra thickly by Brody, is what keeps the movie going during the dreary and quite bleak first 45 minutes. Integrated with his desolate existence of meal prep and car part restoration, we spend enough time with him early on, that we care for him when things go bad later. While every other character doesn’t get fleshed out as well, there are more types here than actual people — there’s something latched onto Clean’s soul from his own tormented past, and Brody’s conviction carries you along for the ride.

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The only way this works if you get a talented lead at the forefront, and Brody delivers. There’s something painfully wounded about his stare here, which stretches an extra couple miles longer than usual. He looks like a guy who has seen every form of trauma and tasted it too, even ones that we aren’t sure about. They say there’s nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose, but “Clean” taught me there’s nothing worse than a bad man who decided to be good.

Adrien Brody

Brody produced and co-wrote the film with director Paul Solet, who has worked with the actor before. Their familiarity with each other’s tendencies is echoed by the camera, which paints the setting in dark grays and harsh brights for the entire film. Supporting cast members such as Mykelti Williamson and RZA both acquit themselves nicely in small yet fine roles.

If you prefer uplifting and phony light, “Clean” isn’t the movie for you. It’s a dark tale with a revenge hook that doubles as a seminar on grief. Believe me, the end of this film delivers, but it’s the subtlety in the quieter moments that gives the action sequences depth. The carnage isn’t some fizzled-out gun battle or battle of fists, but one that gets inventive and righteous. What the world has taught us is that there are different forms of menschs, people who do certain good deeds that can only go unpunished if there is some justice located inside of their intent.

The Twist

In a weird twist of morbid fate, “Clean” has a satisfying close that wraps a neat yet provocative fate around its story, overcoming genre tropes such as unnecessary narration and a cheap aesthetic. Here, it’s the star power of Brody and the willingness of a revenge movie to move at its own pace while still coming in around 95 minutes that makes this B-movie prove worthy.

Like its anti-hero at the center, “Clean” may not be perfect and could be forgotten by the spring, but it doesn’t ask you to love the saved and saviors in its grim tale–only wonder long enough what made them so broken in the first place.

“Clean” opened in theaters in St. Louis on Jan. 28.