Slamdance Film Review: Cat Sticks
Slamdance Film Festival
Director: Ronny Sen
Photographer Ronny Sen’s filmic debut, Cat Sticks, marks a first for his career and for this year’s Slamdance Film Festival. Cat Sticks is the festival’s sole Indian film for the 2019 lineup, taking viewers into the 1990s—2000s heroin boom in Kolkata, including the rise of synthesized variants of the drug that swept the area with death and destruction. The film derives its moniker from the wax matchsticks popular among users. Cat Sticks delves into the desperate, nightly endeavors of several addicts maneuvering their torturous jones and unglamorously careening through the sad underground of their city. The Trainspotting tempo of the film lends a grittiness that upends the mainstream glitz and grandeur of modern Indian films. There are no epic musical numbers, no colorful costuming, no rom-com sentimentality and no Bollywood bombasticism. Cat Sticks’ leading men are thin, threadbare and devoid of charm, and their city (and their very lives) are humming along without them.
Sen’s tenure in photography shines through from the start. By including evocatively composed scenes in high-contrast greyscale, any screen still of which would itself be a powerful photographic image. The starkness of the film, with its frequent lack of musical soundtrack and intense closeups of dour, drawn faces in the depths of the high is disquieting and enthralling. Its protagonists are languid and mess—a perfect characterization of chronic opiate addiction in the struggling castes of society. The complex socioeconomic, gender and cultural identities of the cast lend a tension frequently careening toward desolation that feels especially salient in the contemporary crisis of drug use and dissolving traditional masculinity. Scenes of soaking monsoonal storms, interpersonal violence and organ trafficking splinter the film, cutting through the equally unsettling calm.
The film closes with litanies of personal tragedies, dredges of dope sickness and a garden of skeletal ghosts trundling around, seeking the next hit to assuage their suffering. The drug culture of the era and region can not be easily ignored after viewing Sen’s disruptive snapshot of the dirty truth of heroin addiction. Death, familial destruction, chronic disease, prostitution and financial ruin are all dealt with clearly and cuttingly in the film.
Cat Sticks provides audiences no resolution, merely recognition. Even a highlight character, “Ronnie” (ostensibly named after Sen himself), is left in the lurch, slumped against the wall of a church, having sought sanctuary for his escalating disease-with a chalkboard tallying the drug deaths over the recent years at his side. Until the entirely bitter end, no clear character arc or redemption is at hand—suggesting the tiniest notion that we all have our undeniable thresholds of suffering. Hopefully, some arrive at theirs in time to heal. Audiences with the audacity to face the unvarnished truths of the street opiate addiction will find Cat Sticks an admirable Slamdance offering. –Paige Zuckerman
Jan. 31 // 3:15 p.m // Ballroom
Preceded by narrative short Sparky, directed by Ronny Sen.