If Paul Verhoeven has a personal motto, it’s, “Subtlety, be damned.” Anyone who’s seen Starship Troopers or RoboCop can attest to the fact that this is one guy who does not handle filmmaking with kid gloves. But Verhoeven’s penchant for the lurid and overdone extends not only to American-bred blockbusters. Evidence of the man’s excessive style can be witnessed in the films he made in his native home of the Netherlands, of which 1980’s Spetters is one of the more notorious. Cited as one of the reasons Verhoeven made the move stateside, Spetters is a more bleak coming-of-age tale than audiences are used to — and had its disjointed melodrama not gotten the better of it, the film might have even been a minor genre classic.
Its numbers already including the likes of The Wild One and Saturday Night Fever, Spetters arrives with its own take on the teen rebellion flick. Our heroes are a trio of working-class Dutch lads who each inhabit their own stereotype. Rien (Hans van Tongeren) is the loud one, Eef (Toon Agterberg) is the quiet one, and Hans (Maarten Spanjer) is the perpetual doofus. Together, these kids divide their time amongst partying, chasing girls, and indulging in their love for motocross racing. But as it turns out, life has some big plans in store for the boys, namely coaxing them into growing up on the double. While Hans is left in the dust as per usual, Rien finds himself pegged to be a rising motocross star, saddled with fame, fortune, and a devious fast food vendor (Renee Soutendijk) who wants a piece of the action. Eef, meanwhile, has taken to mugging male prostitutes for cash, though doing so forces him to confront his own confused sexuality.
Nothing jerks my chain like seeing a film come so close to greatness, only to have it hurt doubly so when it settles for less. Such is the fate that befalls Spetters, which tackles poignant drama the same way a Bengal tiger would a Porterhouse. This isn’t to knock Verhoeven’s style, which actually works on the outset. Verhoeven’s tone resembles that of an edgier Porky’s, often explicit and raunchy but never glamorized. Never does the film try to convince you that it’s cool (which, considering the hilariously dated ’80s atmosphere, would be an incredible feat), which better allows the main characters to be the booze-swilling horndogs they are. The performances come across naturally, especially considering the many carnal hoops the actors are made to jump through. With Verhoeven’s attitude towards sex far from prudish, such moments are handled with a touch of humor that actually enhances their impact. One amusing bit has two couples faking a roll in the hay to impress the other, and a literal dick-measuring contest tosses all signs of nuance out the window.
But as refreshing and frank as Spetters is at first, the transition into being something more works about as well as a Gaza peace talk. The trouble is that Verhoeven approaches the drama the same way he does the comedy, which is to say candidly and free of pretension. This is good in theory, but the methods by which Verhoeven aims to earn the viewer’s sympathy are simplistic to a rather insulting degree. The last half of Spetters is a veritable parade of sadness, an almost rapid-fire succession of depression plot twists that come to exist for their own sake. Verhoeven abandons reason in favor of getting a rise out of the audience, often at the characters’ expense. It makes no sense seeing the guys each fall for Soutendijk’s character, even after she’s made it abundantly clear that’s she’s a blatant whore, and the aftermath of one character’s gang rape is less ironic and more head-scratchingly bizarre. Any empathy for these lost souls slowly starts to fade away, and by the movie’s end, the only thing keeping us watching is to see whether they suffer the overwrought fates we’re certain await them.
Like the most disappointing movies, Spetters isn’t bad, just misguided. More than anything, it’s the victim of its own director trying way too hard to be effective, to the point that he’s almost laughing at the characters rather than with them. There’s more to a drama than just bad stuff happening, and while Spetters gives things a try of the old college variety, the way Verhoeven abuses his storytelling tactics emerges as the film’s greatest tragedy.