On a US reality TV show, 'The Contenders', six press-ganged individuals must kill or be killed. Surly mother-to-be Dawn (Smith) is reigning champion, but can she survive the latest round? One new contestant is her gentle high school sweetheart Jeff (Fitzgerald), now dying of testicular cancer. Writer/director Minahan has all the elements in place for tragedy, but he's sidetracked by farce. The latest in a long line of fake media creations (Drop Dead Gorgeous, Best In Show), the film endlessly lampoons the tricks of the TV trade and the idiot hopefuls so willing to join in the contrived fun. As satire, too, the movie cops out: the only really shocking killing is committed by the one individual we know barely anything about. By comparison, Dawn's crimes appear victimless, which means we don't have to question where our sympathies lie. How convenient. We get the point that 'The Contenders' audience is as dumb as it is savage, but we never have to face that truth about ourselves. Nevertheless, the film is affecting, especially towards the end. Smith (so good as the kidnapped victim in The Silence of the Lambs) is astonishingly vital; Fitzgerald is a brittle dream. The snippets we see of a goth pop-video Dawn and Jeff made at school are a tad glossy, but also haunting. More than anything, the grim rapture the teenagers enjoy while posing to Joy Division's 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' makes the message hit home: we're doomed.
Series 7: The Contenders
Cast and crew