Series 7, The Contenders
Written and directed by Daniel Minahan

Starring Brooke Smith


Series 7, The Contenders

It's getting harder to underestimate the tawdriness of America's television culture. Between 'America's Worst Car Crashes,' 'Montel,' 'Survivor,' 'Jerry Springer,' and their clones, it seems only logical that the next big deal will be some kind of real-life-and-death show.

And guess what: That show is already on the air, at least in film. It's called "The Contenders," and when you show up at your megaplex you'll be seeing Series 7, in which six contestants are visited without warning by the show's television crew - sort of like a Publisher's Clearing House from hell, if that's not redundant - but instead of a check they're handed a loaded pistol and told to go kill their rivals in order to win the money that goes to the last person standing.

It's the kind of logical conceit that's been hanging around ever since "Network," waiting for someone with enough talent and chutzpah to make a film about it. And it got both in Daniel Minahan, who wrote the 1996 film "I Shot Andy Warhol." He has written and directed "Series 7, The Contenders" and loaded it with so many ironies you'll walk out crosseyed, but though he makes us scramble our way through heavy thickets of double meanings we come out pure and better for the experience.

His lead is the 8-month-pregnant Dawn (Brooke Smith, who was the agonizingly sad Sonya in "Vanya on 42nd Street,"), and Smith is brilliant here. She is the first contestant to get her gun in an otherwise quiet Connecticut town, and she's glad to have been chosen because she wants to win for her unborn child. The other contestants include a middle-aged E.R. nurse, Connie (Marylouise Burke); a young man with inoperable testicular cancer, Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald); an unemployed security guard (Michael Kaycheck); and a teenaged girl, Lindsay (Merrit Wever), who's driven to her kills by her parents because she isn't old enough yet to have a license.

There are some connections among them: Dawn and Jeff were boyfriend and girlfriend in high school ten years before; now he's engaged but gay (and dying, of course). Can they kill each other? Connie, the E.R. nurse, has no compunctions about killing; she can save a life, deliver a baby, and kill a competitor almost at will. And so on, almost up the end, when Minahan runs into the insurmountable problem of whether to take us into the apocalypse (as Godard did with "Weekend") or to let the air out of his construction and return us gently to earth.

But up until that final moment our trip has been as wild as anything ever seen in film. Minahan is so matter-of-fact about the killing that we find ourselves adopting the same attitudes as his people. Who should we go for first? Who is most likely to kill us, and how will they try to do it? It's "Survivor" carried just a little farther than we expect. Like Darren Aronofsky's "Pi," "Series 7, The Contenders" is a work of breathtaking genius unfettered by anything resembling normal restraint. Don't miss it.