In The Driller Killer artist Reno Miller (Abel Ferrara) struggles mirror those of every young creative professional: making art and paying bills. The stress of managing his artistic vision with the realities of living in New York City weigh on Reno’s patience. He can’t tolerate the loud rock band playing in his apartment building at 2 a.m., the art dealer who won’t buy his masterpiece, or the myriad of homeless people who’re a constant reminder of his fate if he fails to profit as an artist. Reno eventually snaps under these pressures and goes on a killing spree with an electric drill. Don’t worry he’s not hauling miles of extension cords around Union Square, he’s got a pretty cool belt that holds several power drill batteries that allow him to drill-kill on the go. The Driller Killer ends after Reno kills his ex-girlfriend’s ex-husband and lies under the sheets of their bed waiting of her. The movie ends before Reno kills her, leaving it open ended like Inception.
The Driller Killer is an unwatchable 70’s indie masterpiece. But like Rosemary’s Baby, Taxi Driver, and Basket Case it captures in its frames a New York City that no longer exists. People like me will never experience that city except through the lenses of filmmakers who were there building time machines at 24-frames a second. Some sequences in The Driller Killer take the film away from actors reciting dialogue on a set and into cinéma vérité with sequences featuring what appear to be authentically homeless people on the streets of New York in various stages of soberness. It’s inarguably exploitative but it also preserves reality in a way no other medium can. I love that.
I also love movies about artists tortured by the difference between their vision and their finished piece. The Driller Killer does a wonderful job illustrating this struggle by presenting Reno’s masterpiece prominently throughout the film. It’s a beautiful wall-sized painting of a buffalo that looks finished to a layperson like me. The painting is not finished to Reno but he doesn’t share why and eventually gives into financial pressures and puts his imperfect painting up for sale. His self doubts are validated when his art dealer refuses to buy the piece because it isn’t good enough. It isn’t finished; no one would want it. I love that.
I’d only recommend The Driller Killer to someone looking for that window-to-the-past experience or who’s interested in imperfect indie filmmaking. I believe those reasons are why The Criterion Channel added The Driller Killer to its October lineup last year. The Driller Killer isn’t a good movie but it is a movie worth watching, if you’ve got the stomach for it.