Across six previous features, writer/director Tim Sutton has excelled at crafting moody, ephemeral character studies that have prioritized feeling over plot, sometimes for the best (see “Donnybrook”) and sometimes to a film’s complete detriment (see last year’s languid “The Last Son”). He reunites with his “Son” star for his newest, the Colson Baker (aka Machine Gun Kelly) meta-fiction “Taurus.” An odd mash-up of biofiction and celebrity cautionary tale, “Taurus” is heavy on mood — utilizing woozy, overexposed cinematography and a dread-inducing score by Baker — to showcase a burgeoning rapper’s self-implosion over the course of a week or so.
Deadly serious in a way that flirts with the type of self-parody that “Son” often fell into, “Taurus” is often rescued from its sheer oppressiveness by a committed performance by Baker. A more interesting actor than he’s given credit for, Baker plays out his character Cole’s descent with a type of mumbling despair that would work even better without all the odd real-life parallels that Sutton bakes into his script.
But his character’s name, as well as his profession and drug history, purposely blur the lines between fiction and truth in ways that feel more like pretensions than any deeper commentary on Baker’s own life or the recording industry at large. We are given a mix of new and old songs from his Machine Gun Kelly persona and an odd (and frustratingly elliptical) interlude with Megan Fox — who wordlessly plays Cole’s ex Mae — that grafts biography onto fiction seemingly without purpose or interest in unpacking the diverging storylines, as Cole falls deeper and deeper into drug abuse and Baker is, well, seemingly doing pretty okay these days.
Mainly, however, the film is honed in on Cole as he goes about his daily routine, taken from place to place by his benevolent and exasperated assistant Ilana (Maddie Hasson). Acting as his driver, human calendar, drinking buddy, and therapist, the two form the type of toxic-love connection that could only exist in a film about creative types. He both respects and abuses her, criticizing her one minute for being late and leaning on her another as he recovers from his umpteenth hangover.
Hovering on the film, and frame’s, periphery are a series of supporting characters. There’s Lena (Naomi Wild), an up-and-coming singer invited to the studio by Cole to lay down backing vocals, Scoot McNairy’s record studio middleman Ray, who pushes Cole to finish his album; and a sex worker/drug dealer Zia (Sara Silva) whose companionship only further underlines his own loneliness.
What does all of this brooding add up to? “Taurus” lacks the singular contemplativeness of Gus van Sant’s “Last Days,” an obvious inspiration. But where that film narrowed into Michael Pitt’s Kurt Cobain avatar with delicate precision, Sutton’s Cole is too blank, with Sutton using the supporting characters as literalizations of Cole’s various needs, like stability (Illana), love (Zia or Mae), or success (Ray). This might work well on a metaphorical level, but it also reduces Cole to a self-destructive empty vessel, shaded in only by the extra-textual references to Baker’s own life.
Further, Sutton populates the film with several odd postmodern twists that pull the film out of its lived-in reality. For every moment we get of Cole freestyle rapping in the studio, there is also a whip-its-induced phone call to Mae that is played out as a stand-up routine on an imagined stage. These two modes never really coalesce, as Sutton essentially abandons the imagined realities halfway through.
Once Sutton’s affectations fall away, we are left with a singular performance by Baker, who has essentially stripped away any and all affability to play a truly desperate man unable to stop circling the drain. Even if he’s only really given a single note to play — misery, mainly — he plays it quite well, assuredly oscillating between sad-boy mystique and petulant child. “Taurus” may not reach the existential heights of “Last Days,” but it’s a step in the right direction for Sutton and a continued reminder that Baker needs more roles that reflect his skill set. [C+]
RLJE Films releases “Taurus” in theaters on November 18.