The pink neon of the bar glints off of the cheap booze and expensive jewelry worn by the film buffs in attendance. It’s a packed house at Roxy’s, a well-worn cabaret full of exposed wire and brick. This is Wichita’s home for small plays, concerts, and, this weekend, screenings for the Tallgrass Film Festival. The audience is younger than I expect, though mostly young professionals and hipsters from the area. But I also see a studded belt here, the flash of a nose ring there. Some of Wichita’s punks have come out to play.
At it’s core, Bomb City is the true story of one man: Brian Deneke, played in a standout performance by Dave Davis. Deneke is lean and lanky, decked out in a studded battle jacket and foot high green mohawk. A fan of hardcore punk like Blatz, Destroy Everything, and especially Filth, high-school drop out Deneke has become a sort of ring-leader for the budding punk community in Amarillo, Texas. Tensions are boiling in the conservative town, and it culminates in the act of violence that took 19-year-old Deneke’s life. The film was made with the blessing of Brian’s family. His mother and father were even in attendance at the screening at Roxy’s. The filmmakers worked extensively with Brian’s family and friends, the people involved in the trial, and the town of Amarillo to accurately capture the life and times in which Brian lived.
The story of the film is told in anachronic order; in a sense beginning at the end. We hear a speech on youth violence layered over armed punks emerging from a truck to do battle with a faceless mob leering in the distance. The opening scene is shot with the camera pointed away from the main subjects. We hear the sounds of battle, see shadows clash. But we can’t see it. The camera shifts to a court room. A stuffy looking attorney (Glenn Morshower at his glowering and bombastic best) rails against punk rock. Finally, a lone figure hitchhikes into town with his skateboard in hand. The film establishes early the two sides of the fight: the punks who don’t want to fit in, and the conservative town that wants to make them. Caught in the middle is skinny punk rocker Brian Deneke, rolling into town after a brief leave of absence.
The film asks a simple question: is there a wrong way to rebel? Both of the main “factions” of the film do what they do to flout authority and expectation.The punk rockers drink, dress strange, have wild and colored hair. They listen to and create music that is the embodiment of their frustration, but also their freedom. They create art that rehabilitates the symbols of the culture they’ve rejected, like street signs and cars. Meanwhile, the more well regarded jocks drink with wild abandon, listen to rap music, and posture against everyone different from them. The rebellion of the punks is constant, and they’ve developed their own tight community. The jocks, meanwhile, have to continue to fit in. When they let loose, it is literally set off with an explosion.
Darkness and light are strongly contrasted in the film, with the activities of the punks set frequently in the darkness of the club, a lamplit alleyway, or a field in twilight. The “normal” world, meanwhile, is presented in a harsh and sterile white light. When the punks enter the fluorescence of a soda shop, or even a well-lit humane society shelter, you can feel the wrongness of the image. We are made uncomfortable in this light. These are the people we see in the dark and in this film, that’s not a good thing.
A standout part of this film is its fidelity to the punk scene of the 90’s. Director Jameson Brooks and some of the crew grew up in Amarillo during the year this film is set, 1997. Every sound, every look, the fashion, even the way the characters talk. When we get our first walk through of the club, the film is filmed like a documentary, and feels like one. Such is the accuracy of its depiction.
The film also gives plenty of character to Brian’s fellow punks. A biopic frequently sacrifices side characters to the main character’s story, but the people that make up Brian’s circle are as fully realized as he is. When the hammer drops, they are who we look to when we react. In making them human, Bomb City imparts to the audience the human impact of Brian’s death on those around them. When Deneke’s huge, skinhead (“It predates that Nazi shit, man”) brother Jason (Dominic Ryan Gabriel) breaks his film-long tough guy posturing and cradles his brother in his arms, inconsolable as the world collapses around him…it’s perhaps one of the most effective scenes in the film.
The town of Amarillo, the movie states, sits atop 20+ un-exploded nuclear weapons, just waiting to go off. But there’s another bomb ticking: toxic masculinity. For the characters in the films, that bomb proves far deadlier than any nuke. The film is dripping with testosterone. It is in the bike chains tied around Brian’s fists, in the gas tanks of a jock’s truck, in the air as the two sides square off in a parking lot. In either side, the few girls act as as voices of reason but are quickly silenced when things get heavy.
The film hits you hard and hits you deep. Brian Deneke is a character you want the best for. He is a lovely guy with a great family and a clear path in life. The refuge he finds in his scene becomes a refuge for us as well, a place where the film lets Brian, and us, relax a bit, cut loose. When that sanctity is breached, we’re as mad as the punks. When Brian is killed, it is heart wrenching. To top it off, the kid who kills him gets off scot-free. At my screening, not a single person was dry-eyed at the end. There was tension, anger, a tightening of our guts. We wanted a happy ending where there could be none.
This film did its job near-perfectly, but it sometimes falls too far into black and white characterizations. As I said, the punks are well-rounded and human individuals. Logan Huffman in particular, as Ricky, puts in a masterful supporting performance in a role that is essentially Brian’s Id. But the other side, the jocks who represent “society,” is a bit more flat. Their characterization feels straight out of an 80’s comedy, all letter jackets and masculine posturing. Their only insult seems to be calling people “faggot.” Some characters in this group are allowed some good scenes with depth, like the true-to-life reactions of Michelle (Audrey Gerthoffer ) to the chaos around her. But overall, the punks may as well have been fighting orcs. Meanwhile, Brian himself is depicted as borderline messianic, dying while trying to help his friends, dying after spending the whole film as the voice of reason. There are times where the film seems to lay it on thick, however. We see his loving family, his popularity with the scene, his connection with young punks. None of which seem to be anything but accurate, I might add. But once they introduce a brand new puppy for Brian and his girlfriend to dote on and care for, not a night before he dies, it seems a bit much. Which is not to say that his death wasn’t like getting your feelings curb stomped, but you can see the strings.
Finally, while the women in the movie have a purpose, I think they could have been seen more. The filmmakers themselves said that the women were meant to be voices of reason, but for most of the movie they just mill around. One of them just seems to be either stoned or used for sexual pressure, the other just reacts to everything happening around her. The jocks don’t even get a female presence until near the end of the film. Especially in the punk scene, awash with bad ass women of all shapes and sizes, the overall lack of women in the film was disappointing.
All that in mind, I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Bomb City is a labor of love, and it shows. It is beautifully shot and acted, with performances that capture the raw emotions that swirl around the events of the film even today. Brian Deneke’s story is an important one, and you owe it to yourself to give it a listen. Plus, with a huge soundtrack of Brian’s favorite bands, you’ll catch some amazing tunes as you do.
Bomb City is wrapping up its festival circuit, but it will be at the Houston Cinema Arts Festival. on November 12th. A full trailer will drop in December, with the film entering limited release in February of 2018. Bomb City was produced by Major Dodge for 3rd Identity Films.