Slasher (2004)

30 Sep

They earn a (mostly honest) living by slash, slash, slashing prices! (Kevin, from left to right, Slasher and Mudd)

A few weeks ago, I watched “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard.” While I was right in thinking it would be stupid, I was wrong in assuming it would also sustain entertainment value. I should have picked “Slasher,” the unbelievable biographical documentary of a real-life car lot slasher sale auteur Michael “just call me Slasher” Bennett.

Director John Landis (yes, that John Landis) and his film crew follow Bennett, his DJ Kevin, and his “mercenary salesman,” a guy he calls Mudd, over the course of a three-day sale in Memphis, Tenn., in 2004. Technically this is pre-recession, but the Memphis presented in this film is clearly already feeling some effects. Bennett is shocked to hear the Toyota dealership his team will be working is selling less than 40 cars a month. He enters with the goal of selling 60 cars in three days. The tactics he uses in his attempt to meet that goal, as well as the steps his team takes to relieve the tension of the high-pressure sales lifestyle, are unblinkingly documented by Landis.

The dealership’s sales manager honestly admits the purpose of a slasher sale is to move stale merchandise. Know that line “All vehicles must go to make room for the new models?” That’s a slasher sale. For the Memphis sale, the value of each car on the lot, aka how much the dealership is in for, is written on each car in code form, then the sales price — a believable amount higher than the value price — is marked clearly on the windshield. This lets the slasher wander around the car lot and cut prices seemingly at random. The importance of Bennett’s performance to this process cannot be understated.

Landis wisely puts the bulk of the focus on the manic Slasher. If you were to simply list facts about Michael Bennett, you would end up with something between a questionably sympathetic protagonist and a flat-out unsympathetic protagonist. But Bennett’s nutty charisma and his refreshing complexity keep you squarely in his corner. He’s a man who loves what he does, understands the perception of what he does and somehow ends up being more than what he does. He’s utterly fascinating.

What I found somewhat surprising and a real gamble on the part of the filmmakers was the willingness to also chronicle the customers. Some are there  for the promise of an $88 car, some are there for free giveaway gifts and a few seem to honestly be there because they need or want to buy a car. Credit problems are rampant in the dealership’s customer base; often the folks looking to buy a car really need the Slasher to get the price down to something they can pay in cash. Looking back at this now given the economic upheaval of the past few years, it’s easy to have sympathy. Landis walks a fine line in playing the viewers’ natural inclination to be on the side of the customer off against the wise cracks, irritation and finally desperation of the dealership sales staff. He masterfully reminds us that livelihoods are on the line on both sides of the sale without being too preachy or taking too strong a stand for either side.

Landis shows a touch with this documentary format that I honestly was surprised to see. There’s almost a tenderness toward the subject, as madcap and utterly ridiculous as it is. Bennett is the star of the show, there’s no doubt, but Landis is also able to capture the quintessentially American car buying process and present it in a way that underscores how important owning an automobile still is for so much of the country and demonstrate that  it’s still part of that as-yet unattainable American dream for a distressingly large part of the population. It’s a little crazy to see those economic cracks which seemed to come out of nowhere just a few years later; they were always there, they were just affecting people who were already poor, so it wasn’t much of a concern.

Thankfully, though, we’re still talking about John Landis here, so the action never gets too heavy. The man has a knack for finding a soundbite, and there are some real laugh-out-loud moments in this film — great one-liners, gotta-see-it-to-believe-it situational humor and more than a few lingering, perhaps mildly sardonic, shots. The documentary subjects are presented as-is; there are no questioners’ prompts present in the final film, which I am glad for. I am reminded with “Slasher” of “Gates of Heaven,” one of my all-time favorite documentaries. In that feature, as in this one, the strength of the inherent comedy is allowed to ride on its own, and it’s ever so much more genuine (and hilarious) on that merit.

I’ve enjoyed Landis’ brand of screwball, dark humor in the past, but I felt he was a little limited as a filmmaker. “Slasher” has me thinking differently. Landis initially intended the piece to be a slick, quick-cut comparison of used car salesmen and politicians, born of his frustration with the American political landscape at the time. He smartly recognized he had a much, much better prospect on his hands and made a fantastic movie out of it. Kudos to him. Three stars out of four.

“Slasher”: Unrated (common sense rating: 17 and up). Starring Michael Bennett as himself. Directed by John Landis. Cinematography by Paul Dokuchitz and Peter Rieveschl. Film editing by Martin Apelbaum.

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