Watching “Gummo” (1997) in 2021: A Violent Exploration of Class in Contemporary America

Shaky handheld clips of dilapidated homes, power lines and families flip through the screen as a child sings an expletive-filled nursery rhyme. A child starts to mumble: 

“Xenia, Ohio. A few years ago, a tornado hit this place. It killed the people left and right … Houses were split open … People’s legs and neck bones were sticking out … I saw a girl fly through the sky, and I looked up her skirt.”

The narrator jumps between sounding like a child and like he’s spitting prose. The seemingly arbitrary and blurry visual footage of dogs stuck in trees and children riding bicycles burn into my subconscious as I listen to this anonymous narrator speak, gluing me to the television.

 Last week, after a particularly long, grueling day of Zoom calls and minimal social interaction, my friend suggested we watch “Gummo (Korine, 1997). Exhausted from staring at screens all day, we logically decided to stare at a larger screen for another hour and a half. I had never heard about the movie, but I approached it with an open mind, even after my friend admitted that it was probably going to be “foul” or offensive — definitely an understatement. 

The image of a child holding an angry cat by its scruff violently seizes my attention. He walks up to a trashcan full of water and plunges him in. In my stunned stupor, I assume that the child is trying to bathe the cat. After a few seconds, this assumption is proved wrong when we see a close-up of the struggling cat’s face underwater. This isn’t the last moment of violence in the movie. Much to my dismay as an ardent cat-lover, it is not even the last moment of terrorism and violence inflicted against cats. The characters of Solomon (Jacob Reynolds) and Tummler (Nick Sutton) ride around for a large portion of the movie hunting stray cats for the local grocery store. 

“Gummo’s” mostly pointless violence extends to all aspects of the residents of Xenia’s lives. The audience becomes a spectator to numerous scenes of physical violence, as well as disturbing scenes depicting emotional abuse, glue-sniffing, child-molesting, hoarding, a disabled prostitute and racism, among many other things. Like many other viewers, I came to the quick conclusion that these scenes were put into the movie for shock value and that “Gummo” was an exploitative film made to laugh at poor Americans. After letting it stew in my mind for a few days, I looked into the details behind the production process, and what I found changed my mind. If more people approached “Gummo with an open mind, they would find that it has a lot more to say about isolation and class in contemporary America than its low ratings and occasionally shocking images and language would make it seem. 

The rest of “Gummo” is composed of a collage of vignettes, centering around characters portrayed by the only five professional actors in the movie (Chloe Sevigny, Nick Sutton, Jacob Reynolds, Linda Manz and Jacob Sewell). “Gummo’s” film director Harmony Korine grew up in the same poor neighborhoods in Nashville, Tennessee that “Gummo” was filmed in. For casting, Korine asked random Nashville residents to volunteer. The misconception that I had after first watching the movie, that “Gummo” is a form of “poverty porn,” was thrown out the window once I realized the attitude that Korine took towards filming the people he grew up around. Most of the characters in “Gummo” are essentially portraying themselves. If “Gummo” was poverty porn, Korine would have pushed viewers to take some kind of satisfaction out of the chaos and absurdity that the characters live alongside. Whether it be humor or moral superiority, Korine would make sure that the viewer felt uplifted by the end of the movie. But this is not the experience of watching “Gummo.” Korine does his best to portray these people without any modifications. If there’s anything that he wants, it is for these people to be taken seriously regardless of their decisions. 

So, while the motif of cat abuse is not comfortable to watch, it is not gratuitous violence. It is recurrent to emphasize how little value these people place on their own lives. If the lack of resources and aid these people receive from their country has taught them to accept that their lives are not valuable, then why would they value the lives of cats? They don’t have the luxury to treat cats with respect.I’ve come to the conclusion that the direction “Gummo” takes depends on the mindset of viewers. Its characters are not meant to be laughed at and the people in it are not meant to be judged. Instead, “Gummo” forces citizens of “flyover country” into the viewer’s consciousness without using them as a strawman for the viewer to judge and feel superior to. The movie demands that the viewer acknowledge these people exist and insists that any immoral and destructive behavior committed directly results from the negligence of their own country. During the final stretch of a pandemic that has both revealed and worsened class divisions in America, “Gummo” is the perfect watch to reflect.