You may have seen the trailers and posters for Branded — the new movie in which weird creatures grow out of people's backs and the tops of buildings. It looked like a weird surrealistic version of They Live, mixed with some monster-movie imagery. But that ad campaign was somewhat misleading — and that's rather amusing, given that this is a movie about misleading marketing.
Unfortunately, instead of a fun monster movie, Branded is a truly dreary lecture on late-stage capitalism, in which logic basically goes out the window. The ending, in particular, will leave you scratching (or maybe clutching) your head. Spoilers ahead...
And this is your last warning. There's no way to talk about how insane this movie is without major spoilers. So if you are planning on going to see it, and want to avoid spoilers, stop now.
Branded is clearly a sincere attempt to comment on the ubiquity of marketing, made by a couple of marketing guys. They want to make a grand statement about the way our desires have been hijacked by corporate brands. By having people say things like, "The castrated lamb is still happy, because he doesn't know what he's lost." (One of many such lines in the film.)
Unfortunately, the makers of Branded have forgotten one of the main rules of marketing: Tell a clear, compelling story. Instead, they've created a bit of a bloated mess, where the details seem to be getting away from them and some major plot twists seem to come almost literally out of nowhere. You can sense that they knew the movie was kind of a mess, because some important plot points are communicated by a cheerful voiceover, that I'm willing to bet was added at the last minute. (The voiceover, at the end, turns out to be the voice of a talking animated cow constellation, winking in the night sky.)
But really, here's all you need to know about Branded: the ostensible villain is a marketing guru played by Max Von Sydow. He's only actually in a few scenes, where we see him hatching evil schemes from his own private Polynesian island in the middle of nowhere. We keep waiting for him to meet the movie's hero Mischa (Ed Stoppard) but it doesn't ever happen — and then, just when the movie is starting to reach a narrative climax, Max Von Sydow randomly gets struck by lightning and evaporates. For no particular reason.
No, seriously. The bad guy gets struck by lightning and evaporates. He's in the middle of giving a speech about how the bad guys can still win, and then BOOM. He's zapped, and all that's left of him is his little silk robe, falling on the floor empty. He does an Obi-Wan.
Sorry to give away that chunk of the ending, but really.
The actual ending, which happens 20 or 30 minutes later, is even more nonsensical than that. But we won't give away what happens.
So what's the actual plot of Branded? Let's see. Misha (Ed Stoppard) is a young guy who got struck by lightning when he was a kid. And now he's a genius advertising executive in Moscow. His boss/mentor is Bob Gibbons (Jeffrey Tambor), who's definitely the best thing in this movie but also seems a bit confused by what he's doing here. Misha teams up with Bob's niece Abby (Leelee Sobieski) to create a Russian version of Extreme Makeover — not realizing that the whole "plastic surgery beauty show" thing is actually a scheme by the evil fast food companies to convince everybody that fat is beautiful, by having the plastic surgery go terribly wrong.
That's more or less the first half of the movie — Max Von Sydow masterminds this scheme to put a beautiful, charismatic but fat woman in a coma during her plastic surgery. That way, people will decide that trying to attain an unreasonable beauty standard is pointless, and they'll start eating more burgers instead. Sure, why not?
After his glitzy marketing life comes crashing down and an innocent woman is in a coma, Misha retreats to the countryside, where he lives in a hut with an outhouse and avoids looking at any advertising. But after Abby comes to see him, Misha has a dream in which he falls asleep and has a dream. (Yes, they do the Inception thing, but they need a clunky voiceover to explain it to us.) In his dream within a dream, Misha realizes he needs to strip himself naked and light a red cow on fire. There's a whole lot of bathing naked in cow ashes. This "red cow ritual" is what causes him to have an altered perception, allowing him in turn to start seeing the blobs on people's backs. (Later, these turn into monsters that fly around and stuff.)
So I guess the blobs are metaphorical, or maybe spiritual. Like I said, Misha only sees them because he's done this weird supernatural ritual, involving the red cow. And then the final 40 percent of the movie is what he does about realizing that brands are evil and that our precious psyches have been colonized by brand monsters. And honestly, that's where the film goes from somewhat wobbly to full-on WTF.
I always want to cut a movie like this a lot of slack, because it's a small indie production. And because it's clearly very sincere in its message, even though that message is both oversimplified and horribly muddled. But sadly, this movie did too good a job of marketing itself for us to let it off the hook. Plus, Max Von Sydow gets struck by lightning and evaporates!
Okay, so let's talk about fatphobia. In the effort to dramatize the distorting power of brands, the movie picks on fast food companies. And we see the notably skinny Max Von Sydow scheming to create a "fat is beautiful" message, simply to sell more burgers. Later, we see the impact of this — everybody is now really fat, and this is portrayed as the insidious power of the burger companies at work. The implication is that if you say "fat is beautiful," you're a tool of the man. Obviously, this is a terrible message, and I wouldn't recommend seeing this film if you've got any kind of body-image issues. But also, the whole story is one of the many hard-to-swallow (sorry) things in this movie, just from a logic and consistency standpoint.
There are some really interesting ideas bandied about in the film, including the notion that Lenin invented marketing when he sold Communism to the Russians in 1918. And there are a few moments of irony or cleverness where you can see this film straining to be something smarter and more self-aware.
All in all, the most you can say about Branded is that it's probably destined to be a cult classic. Both for its earnest didacticism, and for its moments of unintentional humor, including the whole naked cow ritual thing and Max Von Sydow getting struck by lightning and evaporating. But this film doesn't just suffer from a mismatch between its marketing and its reality — it's also probably the wrong tone. A film this polemical, and this weird, really ought to have been a comedy. An intentional comedy, I mean.