Mike McCarthy’s 2009 film CIGARETTE GIRL was birthed in Memphis, Tennessee and seeks to make no bones about his sense of style or storytelling. This isn’t monster-in-the-house horror or low budget splatter, instead this is a cinematic effort for those who still like to watch films at the Drive-In and still remember Russ Meyer. Set in a not too distant future, a dystopian society has developed through the segregation of smokers and non-smokers in America. Those still wishing to feed their nicotine habit at exorbitant prices are forced to live in the squalor of the Smoking Section – a dilapidated part of town with no hospitals, no police, and no rules. Don’t expect EQUILIBRIUM or DISTRICT 9 in the sense of quasi-futuristic politics, but rather CLOCKWORK ORANGE where unchecked violence seems to reign as the cause and solution to all problems. Dump an ashtray of cigarette butts into a blender with one vignette of SIN CITY, a stiff dose of estrogen, and then pour into a shot glass to be served in broad daylight and you have the flavor this film hopes you swallow.
Our heroine, played by Cory Dials, drives forward a narrative of contemporary despair, of coping with a life that can no longer be the way we wish to remember it. Her grandmother, the matriarch who raised her, is slowly dying from lung cancer. As her Grandmother begins to circle the drain, Cigarette Girl is haunted by the ghosts of her squandered life which motivates her to quit smoking. But one addiction must replace another, because no one ever really quits anything; they only forgo it for something better, or worse. Heaped upon her troubles are the fact that her ex-junkie boss Ace, who comes across like Nick Cave on a bad day, has sent his goons to reclaim Cigarette Girl’s classic 1970 Black Cadillac. They inform her that she no longer has a job slinging smokes at the Vice Club, a cigarette factory turned smoking lounge that’s really a front for prostitution and narcotics. What’s a girl to do? Well she takes to the streets to sell her wares and undercuts her competitors prices causing a rift that ends in plenty of blood spilled. Wandering into the fray is Runaway, a teen looking for salvation in the Smoking Section and seeking to satisfy her own cravings of belonging and full filtered flavor. Becoming entangled with Cigarette Girl, Runaway embodies the decayed innocence that now inhabits both sides of the segregated society, proving there’s little hope for either side.
The musical score is something to note, driving an anguished tale through both night and day. Even when the characters embrace the safety of sunlight with the hope of a better day, the tone and tempo subconsciously remind us that escape from the Smoking Section is a practice in futility. The orchestral styling of strings dance in a jazz like tempo when coupled with more contemporary instruments creating an eerie, yet longing sense of industrial bleakness. Imagine a soundtrack of heartbreak dedicated to a place rather than a person, with all the pain of unrequited optimism.
Cory Dials immediately invokes Tura Santana of FASTER PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! conjoined with Bettie Page and sprinkled with Vampira. Her efforts are like watching a Burlesque performer that has lost her stage, but is still forced to perform. There seems to be a genuine sadness that radiates from her as she takes her licks in this cruel life, a dealer caught up in the game. She’s not a vigilante so much as a woman who plays by her own rules. Here she stands as a heroine, but there’s no rejoicing in her fight. In the Smoking Section, it’s survival of the fittest in a plume of carcinogens. Ivy McIemore, as Runaway – a TANK GIRL wanna-be, is the Mohawked sprite that serves as the necessary foil to Cory’s efforts. Helen Bowman as Grandma completes the trinity of females that have hoped for better, but have contended with what they have instead. Sadly, none of these characters truly realize what they have until it’s gone. If Raymond Chandler was a feminist cyber-punk this is the type of tale he would endorse. It seems to look like a blend of Nine Inch Nails’ videos without the music.
At times the story commands a faster sense of pacing. As a generation raised on MTV we expect jump cuts every 5 seconds with our action and this is where the style of this film veers from its counterparts. While there is plenty of gun-play, the story is meant to be an introspective on a soul that cannot escape its circumstances. The cinematography is eager and straightforward, almost like a love letter. Where it falters it hopes to deliver visual appeal with good intentions, showcasing the forgotten cityscapes that Elvis used to call home. Visually the film is a buffet of imagery drawing from punk and goth to rockabilly and rap across a spectrum of history and ideologies that have led humanity to this point in time. It’s a melting pot of ideas stirred together for commotion, but it only leaves you wanting more. I say this in the sense that you want to see more gang members, more ruffians, more denizens of the Smoking Section.
With a limited cast and budget McCarthy delivers a worthy effort that begs for more investors to fully realize the vision I hope he intended, and I’m eager to see his next efforts to hit the silver screen. The politics of the current anti-smoking movement which has engufled America and even the basis of ratings for motion pictures is a great topic to explore. This movie provides a clever riff, especially through dialogue, on ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and MAD MAX inspired sensibilities. This is an independent film worthy of checking out for those over-saturated with standard art house fare where style is often confused with content. It hopes to provide a different voice, yet sadly many approach it hoping it will blow them away with the fortitude of its delivery rather than its message. I could see CIGARETTE GIRL being the DEATH PROOF to DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK as their PLANET TERROR. Saucy female heroines kicking ass with style? I’m already in line for popcorn at that midnight double feature.
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You can also find out more information about screenings in your area through the Cigarette Girl FaceBook Page and be sure to follow director Mike McCarthy via Twitter for future updates. You can peruse Mike’s other endeavors at his site Guerilla Monster.