The Film: 3/5
Unemployed Vancouver slacker Donner (Jason Lee) one day hits upon the idea of surviving month to month by going on welfare. Pretty soon his friends Meg (Renee Humphrey), Az (Jason Mewes), Cassidy (Carmen Llywelyn), and Jake (Martin Brooks) have moved to the city to collect welfare and live together. All is well until the day the government cuts all but Jake off of assistance. An attempt to throw a rent party to help keep a roof over their head fails when they leave three kegs of beer in an open van and they naturally vanish without a trace. Donner suggests the group leave the city and travel to the mountains of British Columbia to a cabin he claims his uncle owns so they relax and recharge their batteries while deciding on a new course of action for their lives. Donner's friends become increasingly irritated as their journey drags on for weeks with no cabin in sight despite his assurances, but what they don't know is that their valiant leader has ventured into these mountains to track down the elusive Sasquatch (or Bigfoot if you prefer) after experiencing hallucinations he believes to be a positive omen.
Drawing Flies may not be a Kevin Smith movie per se, but for years it's been marketed to home video consumers with his name prominently featured in the credits as if he made on a break between big screen directing assignments. In truth it was written and directed by Malcolm Ingram and Matt Gissing. Smith met Ingram when he visited the set of Mallrats, the sophomore feature directing effort by Red Bank's favorite son, to write an article for the magazine Film Threat. The two men became friends and the next thing you know several of Mallrats' stars were appearing in Ingram and Gissing's joint directorial debut. Drawing Flies was filmed in the wake of Mallrats' crushing failure to attract the critics and audiences that had supported Smith's own debut feature Clerks. Actors Jason Lee, Jason Mewes, and Renee Humphrey gave up their downtime to headline Drawing Flies, with their Mallrats' co-stars Joey Lauren Adams and Ethan Suplee making cameo appearances while credited under pseudonyms (Suplee was credited as Willam Black, his Mallrats character). Smith himself gets in on the action by showing up in a wordless, blink-and-you'll-miss-it bit part as Silent Bob, apparently. But you won't find them offering retread performances as similar characters this time. Flies is completely different from Mallrats and the vast majority of Kevin Smith's filmography as well as movies he produced or was associated with in some way.
What Ingram and Gissing have done is something more reflective and conceptually interesting than what we were seeing coming out of independent cinema in the decade that gave us names such as Solondz, Rodriguez, Soderbergh, Tarantino, and of course Smith. Drawing Flies reminded me a lot of the classic British comedy Withnail & I at times, with its aimless city-dwellers set loose far outside their urban comfort zone to survive with little more than their wits (which aren't as considerable as they would hope). Rambling pop culture diatribes are also in short supply here, other than a discussion about Scooby-Doo during an early party scene that isn't funny or perceptive but it looks like it was added to flesh out the running time. You might be attracted to give Flies a chance on the basis of seeing members of Smith's repertory company give performances that aren't intended to extract laughs from easily amused viewers, but there isn't much to this film than that. Lee plays a much darker character than we're used to seeing from the future star of My Name is Earl and he does it well enough. Donner just isn't the type of character whose travails should have an entire movie devoted to documenting. I can see why he would think that locating the Sasquatch is the key to giving his life a sense of purpose, but the quest has little bearing on the events that transpire in the movie. The hallucinations he experiences are the strangest interludes in Drawing Flies, and they also provide it with actual humor. At least Lee is better here than he has been recently; he looks dead inside in those Alvin and the Chipmunks movies.
The other noteworthy performance is by Jason Mewes, demonstrating versatility in the early days of his acting career by playing the very un-Jay character Az. He's less of a likeable person than the endearingly dopey drug dealer that established Mewes as a valuable comedic asset in Smith's films, but at the same time the actor never shies from showing Az's better qualities and the sweet chemistry with Carmen Llywelyn (playing his on-screen girlfriend) reveals that an actual heart is practically buried under the douchebag exterior. Martin Brooks never makes much of an impression as the group's dependable straight man so it didn't faze me when Az would constantly mock him for being such a neat and clean jock. Renee Humphrey is cute and fine as the one person in the gang who tries to find merit in Donner's haunting search.
The performances and naturalistic filming style make Drawing Flies' repetitive plot structure bearable most of the time. Once Donner and the others reach the wilderness all they do is walk, stop, talk, walk some more, stop again, bicker, resume their walking, stop yet again, and whine when they're not talking or bickering. The ennui is occasionally broken up by a pointless scene such as when the group encounters several men running around wearing diapers while conducting a disturbing therapy session (one of whom is played by Smith's longtime editor and producer Scott Mosier). The most infuriating part about Drawing Flies is its ending. To even call it an ending is really stretching things. The movie doesn't end so much as it merely runs out of ideas and throws in a goofy final shot that is supposed to bring closure to Donner's quest but instead it feels like Ingram and Gissing lost interest in their own story and rushed to resolve it the best they could. Their skimpy budget could have played a part in the limp conclusion, but somehow I doubt it.
A low-budget indie like Drawing Flies was never going to get much added benefit from an HD upgrade, but Horizon Movies did an admirable job cleaning up the ragged print as best as possible for the film's Blu-ray debut. Presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, Gissing and Ingram's labors are left looking possibly even better than when Drawing toured film festivals in the late 90's. The 1080p transfer is solid but ultimately unexceptional and the increase in clarity only serves to highlight the print's multitude of flaws, from noticeable scratches and dirt to an excess of grain. Given its age and finances I can't fault the makers of this movie for these visual defects, and fortunately the print damage doesn't make the picture unwatchable at all. The sole audio option provided for the movie is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono track. The recorded-on-location overlapping dialogue often sounds muffled and difficult to make out at times, while the booming rock soundtrack of obscure Canadian bands will cause some audio distortion and require manual volume adjustment between the quieter scenes. No subtitles are provided.
Six years after it was filmed and received some play on the festival circuit Drawing Flies made its home video debut courtesy of Indie DVD on a collector's edition disc featuring the kind of bonus features you would expect from a movie associated with Kevin Smith - multiple commentaries, deleted scenes, jokey introduction videos, etc. Those extras have all been ported over to this Blu-ray and Horizon Movies has loosened their purse strings to provide fans of this flick with some exclusive new goodies presented in shimmering high-definition.
First up are two audio commentaries: directors Gissing and Ingram get a track all to themselves to discuss the arduous task of making Drawing Flies on a microscopic budget in Canada, but they relay many interesting stories about the inception of the project and the shoot with good-natured levity; the second brings back the filmmakers to hold court over a crowded cast commentary track featuring Lee, Mewes, Humphrey, Llywelyn (now Lee, married to her leading man), producer Mosier, and Smith himself. With the commentary booth overflowing with participants it's no surprise that this track ends up a mildly coherent affair with the various actors and their directors generally enjoying the movie and sharing whatever anecdotes they can't think of from the production. The actresses even admit at the beginning that they completely forgot their character names.
An 11-minute assemblage of deleted scenes and outtakes are next, but without the director's commentary from the 2002 DVD. Smith and Mosier's 2002 introduction (4 minutes) is here as well as a 2013 intro with Smith and Mewes (3 minutes). Mewes (11 minutes) and Gissing (3 minutes) return for all-new retrospective interviews. A skimpy stills gallery consisting of fourteen images and trailers for the Ingram-directed documentary Bear Nation and the forthcoming Jay & Silent Bob's Super Groovy Cartoon Movie (which looks just fucking terrible and amateurish) close out the extras.
It's easy to admire Drawing Flies for its ambition, weird plot turns, and the occasional bit of pop culture observation that screams "90's independent cinema". But what could have been a daring and offbeat cult classic ends up a sporadically entertaining footnote in the histories of the independent film movement and View Askew. Until the day when the far superior likes of Vulgar and A Better Place get their BR debuts this better-than-average Blu will just have to do. Recommended to Kevin Smith fans with this strongest of warnings: it's not only not another Clerks, but I would barely rank it below Red State.