It takes talent and skill to turn a sick joke into a successful 90-minute movie, and though B-movie director Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, From Beyond, Space Truckers) wouldn't be my first pick to deliver the goods, his prowess with gallows humor and squirm-inducing violence proves to be just right for this "ripped-from-the-headlines" horror-thriller.

Never letting the pace flag for a moment, Gordon expertly balances humor, suspense and gruesome gore to tell the story of society's lumpen caught in a downward spiral of violence and inhumanity. There's Tom Bardo (Stephen Rea), a down-on-his-luck middle-aged project manager who's been kicked to the curb for not paying his rent after his unemployment ran out. Whether he's trying to deal with the Kafkaesque rules of a job placement office or trying to get a night's sleep, Tom just can't get a break. Then there's nurse's aide Brandi (Mena Suvari), in line for a promotion at the nursing home she works at if she can prove herself worthy to her exploitative boss. Manipulated into accepting a weekend shift, she decides to blow off steam with an evening of dancing and getting wasted on X.

The two meet when Brandi, driving home from the club, plows into Tom, embedding him in her windshield. Panicked, she races home unnoticed, parks the car in her garage then reassures him she'll call for help. But once inside, she starts to realize how much trouble she'll be in and chooses to leave Tom where he is: impaled on her wiper blade and writhing in agony. Then things get really weird. Refusing to die, Tom struggles against horrific wounds to dislodge himself, while Brandi enlists her drug-dealing boyfriend Rashid (Russell Hornsby) to help her get rid of her "problem."

What keeps the whole thing chugging along are Gordon's tight, clean scenes, bouncing between Tom's determination to survive and Brandi's increasingly callous attempts to get rid of him. Both characters are depicted as completely ordinary and shockingly human. Brandi is, at first, likable but limited. She is less a monster than a flesh and blood critique of American selfishness and idiocy. Her desperate attempts to avoid responsibility build to comical heights when she begins to scream at bleeding Tom, "Why are you doing this to me?" With a bitter and jet-black wit, Stuck indicts contemporary culture for being so debased and egocentric that the suffering of a dying man is less important than the inconvenience he brings.

Rea is convincing and sympathetic as a man determined to not only survive but maintain his dignity. Hornsby is hilarious as Brandi's amoral and inept boyfriend. But it's Suvari, oddly enough, who shines brightest. Little seen since playing the object of Kevin Spacey's desire in American Beauty, she makes clear the bizarre logic behind Brandi's insane belief that none of what has happened is her fault, painting a frightening portrait of banal and casual evil — almost as evil as the fluffy Pomeranian that decides to nibble on Tom's exposed femur.

It's only at the end that Stuck finally derails, when Gordon and screenwriter John Strysik push things into full-tilt horror. While it's completely understandable to want to give the audience a cathartic payoff, you have to wonder whether a slasher film is the best model. Still, if you're looking for a blood-and-guts thriller with wickedly macabre humor and wry social commentary, this economical little movie is a brilliant counterpoint to the bombast currently filling multiplex screens.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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