Factory towns are the perfect location for a murder. Nothing ever happens. In a non-descript Midwestern town, people get up early, go to work, maybe go to a 2nd job, and then go home to sleep. The next day, they start over again. It’s like a hamster running on a wheel. They feel trapped, and all someone needs is a little flame of resentment to ignite into temporary passionate acts of violence.
A factory town in Anywhere, Ohio is the setting of our story in Bubble. Bubble is directed by Steven Soderbergh, who has directed such box office smashes as The Ocean’s trilogy (11, 12, and 13) plus Erin Brokovich and Traffic. In his portfolio of work, Bubble is an odd addition. Soderbergh chose unknown actors and used close-range camera work. The result is a film that seems as if it could have been shot by a first-time film school student. The story is upfront and intimate. The actor’s performances raw and unadorned.
Back in college, one of my favorite works of American Literature was called Winesburg, Ohio. I still have the paperback book in my book collection. Recently I pulled it out and read a few stories to a friend. I remembered why I enjoyed the book. It’s a collection of short stories about different people who reside in the small town of Winesburg. Each story is essentially the profile of a character. And even though the characters are normal people, with nothing special or outstanding about them, the fact that the story is focussed on this one character so closely is what makes them special. They are, for a moment, like the proverbial fly viewed under a microscope. When viewed at this close range, we see each small detail on the fly’s back and legs. They are, for that moment, fascinating in their simplicity. The people in Bubble are like that. The story is like that.
Martha and Kyle work together at the doll factory. Martha picks up Kyle to drive him to work each day. They stop at the doughnut shop before work and eat lunch together at break. It is pretty clear that Martha has a crush on Kyle, even though she is much older than he is. Martha is a frumpy looking woman with red hair who takes care of her father, who is getting older. Her life seems pretty miserable. She doesn’t have any romantic prospects or hope of escaping this life. She will probably live here until she dies.
Kyle is a painfully shy guy. He lives with his mother in a double-wide trailer. He also doesn’t show much hope for ever having more in life. He works two full-time jobs and comes home to smoke in his bedroom after work before starting another boring day.
Martha’s attachment to Kyle isn’t so much about him, but what he represents. She is probably his mother’s age, but Kyle is quiet, attractive, tall, young, fragile, and kind. She tells him, “I need a picture of you. You’re my best friend.” Kyle rarely opens his mouth, but he’s all Martha has really. She doesn’t seem to have other friends.
Into this boring but stable story enters a third party named Rose. Rose is young, attractive, and has experience airbrushing dolls. She is the cutest thing to enter the doll factory in awhile. Kyle is clearly smitten with her from the moment she enters the factory, although he’s too shy to say anything to her. Martha takes notice of course. Rose begins to intrude upon the precarious bond that is Martha and Kyle. During their threesomes at lunchtime, Rose and Martha do most of the talking. Kyle really just sits there and fills up space. It is clear that Martha resents Rose’s presence and Rose knows she is upsetting Martha’s plans for a quiet life. This is all done, by the way, entirely by the body language and tones in their voices. If you just went by their words, you would think everyone was getting along great and enjoying the conversation.
Rose and Kyle go out a date while Martha babysits her daughter. We see different scenes of this night. The next day, Rose’s body is found murdered. The rest of the movie is the detective investigating whodunit.
At an hour and 15 minutes, the movie is over almost before you know it. But it truly shouldn’t be a minute longer These intense close-up stories with little action don’t warrant a lot of screentime.
When we find out who committed the crime, we aren’t too surprised. It is not what happens in this story, but how we feel while it is going on. We feel the desperation, the unhappiness underneath the status quo. Soderbergh sets a mood in this film that paints a bleak picture of factory towns.
The doll factory itself is like a character. It’s just bizarre and a little macabre seeing the workers create these dolls. The paint the little faces, push in their eyeballs, and shape the bodies out of rubber or other materials. The creation of each doll is a mindless, numbing task. There is no special care taken. It is as if the workers are looking at themselves. The factory churns out dolls just as the factory town has churned out lives of isolation for each of its residents.
Our performances won’t win any awards, but the two lead actors playing Martha and Kyle are perfectly cast. On the DVD special features, you can watch the actors trying out for the three lead parts. It was really interesting to see these videos, which are really just interviews where they describe their lives. Dustin Ashley, who plays Kyle, is in actuality almost exactly like the character of Kyle. He was awkward, shy, and had a hard time expressing himself. Debbie Dobereiner, who played Martha was much more gushy and positive than her character was nevertheless a great choice to play Martha.
This film won’t interest everyone. Fans of North Country (2005) will enjoy it. It is a stark film which has a strong tone and mood.
Kevin Stuarton at The Lost Movies