Brace Yourself! Kinky Amputee Drama Spins My Wheels

rex Brace Yourself! Kinky Amputee Drama Spins My WheelsQuid Pro Quo
Running Time 82 minutes
Written and
Directed by Carlos Brooks
Starring Nick Stahl and Vera Farmiga

Look high and low, but you won’t find a weirder movie than Quid Pro Quo. In 1989, a high-speed car crash kills the parents of a boy named Isaac Knott, leaving him an orphaned paraplegic. Eighteen years later, confined to a wheelchair, he’s a 26-year-old investigative reporter who tells odd stories of life in New York City on public radio. (Same job Jodie Foster had in The Brave One, which should have been a warning. Must be a dangerous career choice, because this one also leads to trouble.) Tracking down a story about a man who pays a doctor to cut off his perfectly good leg, Isaac (played by the gifted Nick Stahl, from In the Bedroom) discovers a sordid underworld of fetish freaks who get off on amputations.

What a story. “Wannabes” who want to be paraplegics just like himself! But Isaac isn’t your typical invalid. He swims. He works out. He stays strong. He can have sex. He gets a mysterious e-mail tip signed “Ancient Chinese Girl.” But when he meets her, she’s a vibrant blonde named Fiona (played by the feral and fascinating Vera Farmiga, who made a lasting impression as the prostitute opposite Jude Law in Anthony Minghella’s doomed Breaking and Entering). Fiona leads Isaac to a pathetic subculture of perverts divided into three groups: the “devotees” who live in wheelchairs but are merely phonies; the “pretenders” who wear their braces but don’t belong to the “cause” in any authentic way; and the “wannabes” who crave disabilities and amputations. “I’m already paralyzed,” says Fiona. “I’m just trapped in a walking person’s body.” To Isaac’s horror, she likes to strut around her apartment in her lingerie with her shapely legs strapped into torturous, medieval “Milwaukee braces.” According to this film, there are thousands of these wackos, wearing prosthetic devices in secret and dreaming of being paralyzed. It’s described as a strange new American dream—a way to improve yourself, one dead limb at a time. Up to this point, Quid Pro Quo reminded me of Crash, the nauseating 1997 David Cronenberg horror show about lunatics addicted to broken bones acquired in deliberately planned collisions, wrecks and highway fatalities (not to be confused with the overrated 2005 Oscar winner with the same title by Paul Haggis). But just when you think you can’t bear another minute of this dismal self-indulgence, the film hangs an abrupt left turn and heads in another direction, as the suspense builds like a racing car with both doors open.

Seduced into a sexually charged affair with Fiona, Isaac suddenly experiences a miraculous “cure” when he dons an odd pair of “spectator shoes” that give him the power to walk. While his healing is a cause for joy, her downward spiral into deformity is just beginning. Unfortunately, when he throws away his crutches, it coincides with her withdrawal from normalcy and her decision to live in her own wheelchair 24/7. He feels normal when he walks. She can’t feel like a complete person unless she’s paralyzed, too. So she steals his magic shoes and threatens to cut them to shreds unless he finds a way to cripple her permanently. Research reveals several ways—including puncturing the vertebrae with a four-inch spinal drill, a fate from which we are fortunately spared. She settles on a drug called “Ginger Jake,” which is supposedly used to soften plastic. (Listen, I don’t make this stuff up; I just sit there in the dark, taking notes.) Just when the film looks like it can’t get any more squirrelly, it takes another right turn in the direction of coherence. No spoilers, please—but when you find out why Isaac is crippled, and why Fiona wants to be, you’ll be floored. Solving the mystery, Isaac gets the best story of his radio career—himself!

Inspired, no doubt, by the alarming art of Hieronymus Bosch and the kinky writing of everyone from Tennessee Williams (One Arm) to Chuck Palahniuk (Snuff), this freshman feature by writer-director Carlos Brooks shows both style and imagination. Viewed as a long dream sequence, but without any self-consciously arty tricks to detour it into hokey surrealism, it creates a Technicolor chiaroscuro that jolts you from cold darkness into bright sunlight without missing a beat. Erotic and complex, it is aided enormously by the actors. Since his astonishing debut at the age of 12 opposite Mel Gibson in The Man Without a Face, Mr. Stahl has grown, stretched and developed into a formidable actor. Ms. Farmiga’s range and diversity never cease to astonish. Their work is notable in Quid Pro Quo, both as intriguing and offbeat as the film itself. It certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of breakfast bitters, but you can’t dismiss it nonchalantly.

rreed@observer.com