2022, R, 94 min. Directed by Paul Solet. Starring Adrien Brody, John Bianco, Alex Corrado, Gerard Cordero, Chandler DuPont, Michelle Wilson.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Jan. 28, 2022
There’s a rumbling, inconsolable guilt at the heart of Clean, the latest from fascinatingly flexible writer/director Paul Solet. He could have stayed on the horror track after his South by Southwest 2009 cult favorite Grace, but instead applied those sensibilities in surprising fashion for true-crime documentary Tread. For bloody and cold revenge drama Clean, he reunites with Adrien Brody, star of his 2017 heist flick Bullet Head, in a somewhat by-the-numbers story of a broken man trying to do one good thing in the only way he knows – the violence he’s tried to put behind him.
Brody plays the titular Clean, a sanitation worker with a grimy history that he’s trying to throw away but that sticks with him. The star also co-wrote the script with Solet, produced, and wrote his first score since his arty home renovation documentary Stone Barn Castle. Clean’s a very traditional hero with a dark past, revealed through flashbacks and nightmare sequences that explain why he’s become a proxy father at arm’s length of his young neighbor, Diandra (DuPont), and why her grandmother, Ethel (Tony nominee Wilson), is begrudgingly OK with it because she knows his hidden horrors.
The inevitable violent collision comes from another father figure: Glenn Fleshler as local crime boss Michael, a Kingpin-esque figure of extreme physical brutality in his criminal enterprises and equal emotional cruelty to his son, Mikey (Richie Merritt). He runs the streets that Clean, well, cleans, and the inevitable intersection of their paths – gory as it is – is set in motion by those children and the lessons they learned.
Clean sits readily in the tradition of John Wick and Nobody, of the everyman with a brutal résumé: But he’s also more of a bottom-feeder than either of those middle-class murderers, his weapons of choice pulled out of a toolbox or bought without serial numbers from a pawn store (run with suitably dour aplomb by RZA). Yet, unlike either of those sibling movies, Clean takes its time to get to the explosion of violence. Much of the opening hour is Clean trying, clumsily, to rehabilitate the collapsing slum (a collapse for which he is clearly partially responsible) that he infests. His is the tragedy of a man painting empty houses to make it look like the past is still alive. It’s that tragic progression, plus Solet’s grasp of sickening and unflinching violence, that raises Clean above the mire of mediocrity.