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Hipster Holy Grail: Stuart Bliss (1998)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Bizarre, ambiguous, and borderline frustrating, Stuart Bliss is a fascinating peek inside the head of a conspiracy theorist and burgeoning Doomsday Prepper.  It's a movie less concerned with plot and story than it is with mood, and it's stronger for it.

My Rating: 4 / 5

The Part Where I Apologize Again for My Shitty Review of Split

Did anybody here read that review?  I was really having a bad week that time.  I really do try only to write reviews for the Grail when I have something worth saying, but it's hard to do sometimes when you're working with such arbitrary restrictions.  I mention Split now because it's very similar to Stuart Bliss in a lot of ways, except that where Split was confusing, experimental, and ultimately left me cold, Stuart Bliss is riveting.

So, consider this review a make-up for Split.  In fact, let's pretend I never even reviewed it.  Let's pretend I only ever wanted to watch one low-budget obscure movie about paranoia and conspiracy, and I picked the right one the first time out of the gate.

Now I'll Summarize the Plot

Stuart Bliss (Michael Zelniker) is a modestly successful businessman / marketing type living in Los Angeles.  After his company gets hold of a surplus of military gear one day, Stuart is challenged with finding a way to sell a bunch of Geiger counters.

In any other movie, this might be the instigating moment in a series of wacky misadventures, but unfortunately fate has something more dire in store for Stuart.  When he comes home later that day, he finds out that his wife, Janet (Dea Lawrence), is leaving him.  After she pulls away in her car, Stuart is left despondent and listless.

One restless night later, and Stuart starts to notice weird things happening around him.  For one, he meets a new coworker named Katerina who looks exactly like Janet (and who is played by the same actress).  For another, he has received a few bizarre phone calls.  Also, his mother, who lives at home, insists on watching the broadcasts of a televangelist (Mark Fite) who keeps preaching about the end of the world.

Gradually, Stuart comes to believe that he is at the center of a vast and complicated conspiracy that threatens to wipe out humanity.  He's not entirely sure what their plan is or how he figures into it.  As Stuart tries to answer those questions, he falls deeper and deeper into a pit of despair, paranoia, and terror.

In the end, nothing much is really resolved, but it's pretty clear that Stuart is suffering either from schizophrenia or the most convoluted and devastating conspiracy of all time.  The vast majority of the movie is the slow and extensive deconstruction of Stuart's mental well-being as he implodes and turns into a full-on crazy person.

So, all in all, it's a pretty happy movie.

The Part Where I Talk About Insanity and Paranoia

Two things that a lot of movies don't handle well are insanity and paranoia.  There's plenty of characters in film who suffer from both, but typically they are presented in such an over-the-top fashion that it either strains belief or they become caricatures.

For example, look at any one of Roland Emmerich's disaster movies.  They almost always have some conspiracy nut who provides the comic relief.  Look at Woody Harrelson in 2012.  Or look at virtually any movie set in a mental health clinic / sanitarium, where a throwaway character will pop up just long enough to say something that's obviously insane, like, "Chipmunks put arsenic in my pudding."

Even well-made movies tend to go too far.  Shutter Island, for whatever plot flaws it might have had, was a well-acted film, but the moments of insanity are presented to us through huge, showy spectacles: characters are invented out of whole cloth and there are long, vivid hallucination sequences.  12 Monkeys features long sequences of a raspy voice taunting the protagonist and convincing him to rip out his teeth.  Or take something like The Truman Show, which isn't really about insanity, necessarily, but it plays up Truman's paranoia as he grows more aware of the conspiracy around him - the clues he picks up on are huge give-aways, like a stage light falling from the sky or walking into an incomplete set.

My point is that in most movies, the truth is terribly obvious.  Either a thing is presented in such bizarre detail and extreme consequence that you can't possibly believe it's real - e.g., a talking rabbit tells the protagonist he needs to deface a statue and destroy the school's water main - or the lie that is supposed to be covering up the truth is so plainly thin and disprovable - e.g., roughly the entire runtime of the Total Recall remake.

Stuart Bliss is refreshing because it goes in the complete opposite direction.  There's nothing "big" in this movie.  There are no grand reveals, there are no earth-shattering pieces of evidence, there are no major moments that defy reality.  Everything is grounded in banality and mundane details - and that's what makes it so terrifying.

Stuart doesn't witness anything specifically horrific.  Not at first, anyway.  He sees small things that are a little bit weird and seem to be connected.  He watches a televangelist make a strange face at the camera on TV, and for a moment, it looks like the televangelist is looking straight at him.  He hears a co-worker make a vaguely menacing statement like, "Watch your back."  He meets a new co-worker who looks a lot like his estranged wife.  He gets a cryptic phone call that might have been a wrong number, but they're asking for "Theodore" and he works with a guy named Theodore.

Gradually these coincidences build up into something more vaguely menacing.  Somebody warns him about being under surveillance, and then he finds out that his boss installed a security camera in the break room at work.  He is visited by ominous Jehovah's Witnesses who tell him that Judgment Day is coming right after he has just learned about solar flares and nuclear radiation.  He gets mail that implies something terrible is upcoming.  A coworker shows up in the office wearing a gas mask and asks for help selling an excess supply of Geiger counters.

Up until the final twenty minutes or so, the "evidence" of the conspiracy against Stuart is ubiquitous and dull, but just strange enough to be compelling.  Stuart's descent into madness is appropriately gradual and believable.  He doesn't immediately start sweating and freaking out - he mostly ignores the weirdness, but eventually his brain just won't let him shake it all off.

The movie is terrifying because you can see yourself falling apart in the same circumstances.  If you're caught in a moment of weakness (like, say, following a bad break-up) and somebody gives you just enough suggestion of something awful, couldn't you see yourself also digging deeper into the rabbit hole to chase some semblance of meaning or truth?  It's kind of like how somebody will give you a list of coincidences revolving around the JFK assassination, and after only thirty minutes of reading them you start to feel a little bit tingly and suspicious.  If you choose to pursue that tingly feeling further, you'll become a conspiracy theorist in no time.

Humans innately want to make a meaningful connection between strange coincidences, so nobody is immune to believing strange things.  Stuart Bliss is a detailed examination of how this particular quirk, when unchecked, can completely unravel a man's life.  It is tragic that it happened to him, but it is terrifying that it could happen to me.

The Part Where I Have Burning Questions

Stuart Bliss is a movie that necessarily leaves a lot of questions unanswered.  Was Theodore actually out to get Stuart all along?  Did he actually have a gun, or did Stuart imagine that?  Was a nuclear bomb actually detonated, as he saw on TV?  Why do Katerina and Janet look the same?  And of course, the big one: Was there a conspiracy?

But I'm actually fine to leave those questions either unanswered or to wave them all away by saying, "It was all in his head."  Those aren't the things that bothered me.  No, my burning questions are more pragmatic.

Why didn't Stuart force open the lock on that journal earlier?

Early on, one of the strange things that comes up is that Stuart finds a locked journal in a bag of Janet's luggage.  He occasionally passes it meaningful glances, as if he suspects that there's some answer inside.  But he doesn't actually force the lock open until the end.

That final reveal is actually a pretty great moment in the movie and I liked it a lot, but it does lead me to wonder why he took so long to pry it open.  It's just a journal.  Nothing too challenging.

Now, I might accept that he's afraid to violate Janet's privacy or something if not for the fact that half an hour earlier, Stuart smashes a massive hole through his kitchen wall after hearing a strange sound.  You're telling me a locked journal is somehow more intimidating?  I'm pretty sure that once you take a hammer to drywall, you've gone beyond the point where you're respecting boundaries.

Why did Janet run into a stranger's car at the end?

I understand the setup to this scene.  Janet returns to her and Stuart's house with a truck and a couple of movers to help her get all of her stuff.  She goes inside and is freaked out by Stuart's behavior and the general state of chaos inside.  So she panics and runs.  But why does she hail down a random stranger in the street and get in their car?

Is she worried about her safety?  She has two movers with her!  Ostensibly they were hired because they've got the brute strength and stamina necessary to move shit all day... wouldn't they be capable enough of defending her if Stuart turned violent?

Come to think of it, wouldn't she have arrived in her own car, anyway?  The moving truck only has limited space up front, and you never actually ride with movers.  Why couldn't she just get in her own damn car and peel out of there?  Wouldn't getting into a stranger's car put you at even greater risk than your creepy soon-to-be-ex-husband?

Are all the mental clinics in Los Angeles full?

The final scene shows Stuart wandering around, probably homeless, handing out flyers to bystanders to warn them of the Apocalypse.  But only a few minutes earlier, we revealed that Stuart, in what was probably a schizophrenic hallucination, assaulted his coworker, Theodore, and locked him up inside a closet.  No matter how forgiving Theodore might be, that was a violent criminal attack prompted by what the courts would perceive to be a mental illness.

So why is Stuart able to freely wander?  Surely they would have forced him into a clinic if he was acting violently.  Did the judge presiding over that particular lawsuit not give a shit?  Did Theodore feel really bad for him and decide to cover up his assault?  Or is the fact that he's free to go even more evidence of the conspiracy?  Maybe this was their plan all along... they wanted Stuart to wander the streets like a vagrant so nobody would believe him.

The Part Where I Wrap Up and Tell You Where to Watch

I didn't mention any of the other aspects yet, but this is just an all-around well-made movie.  The music is strange and appropriate, the acting is pretty solid throughout, the editing and direction are interesting without being overly distracting from the tension on the screen... it comes across as a polished production where a lot of movies with a similar budget tend to come across as amateurish.

I think this may be one of my strongest recommendations for the Grail and it's the kind of movie I look forward to discovering each week.  You can watch it for (basically) free on Amazon Instant Video if you have Prime, but even if you don't, it's worth the rental fee.  Plus, it's only ninety minutes, so there's not much of a commitment needed.  Check it out.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

Quite a bit.  It gets the maximum possible obscurity bonus of 50 points since it has under 100 IMDb ratings, plus my full recommendation bonus of 30 points since I really dug this and want to share it with everyone.  I'm going to tack on another ten point bonus for being a fresh take on the apocalypse.  The material isn't necessarily hipstery, but the uniqueness of it is.  Stuart Bliss gets a total of 90 hipster cred out of a possible 100.