A lively but insubstantial tour through the chaos and rage-loving punk world of Salt Lake City, Utah, circa the Reaganservative '80s.
The 'SLC' in SLC Punk stands for Salt Lake City, while 'Punk,' on the other hand, stands for nothing, because if the punk stands for something, anything, even if it is the steadfast refusal of every system of order known to man, he ceases to live up to the golden rule of the punk philosophy--Anarchy! Right off the bat, SLC Punk deserves credit for spending time playing with that built-in contradiction rather than falling into the trap its title offers. This is not one long juxtaposition joke giving us a bunch of variations of mohawked punkers interacting with the stodgy Mormons who call Salt Lake City their home. There is a bit of that, but writer-director James Merendino, who claims to have based much of this on personal experience, is more interested in providing a GoodFellas-like guided tour through the lifestyle of parties, fighting and drugs enjoyed by wildman Stevo (Matthew Lillard), a rabble-rousing teenager who counts himself and his more staid friend Bob (Michael Goorjian) as the only true punks in the entire Utah capital.
Merendino cops the Scorsese aesthetic shamelessly but effectively (though not always--he and editor Esther Russel aren't nearly as accomplished cutters as Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker), which goes to show what an inherently vibrant, energetic style that is. Stevo holds our hand as he introduces us to friends, defines some terms (punk versus poseur), and recounts anecdotes concerning day-to-day life as a punker, and as with GoodFellas, the course of the film becomes inextricably tied into his mindset. He addresses us directly through narration during the entire film, changing subjects on a whim, sticking with one seemingly irrelevant subject, such as his non-punk but insane German buddy Mark (Til Schweiger), for an unjustified length of time, or stopping everything for an educational aside (whether the punk movement began in Britain with The Sex Pistols, or in America with The Ramones). This comes to us in a flurry of musically highlighted flashbacks, freeze-frames, jump cuts, and dolly moves, all of which serve to keep SLC Punk from stagnating for even a moment. What gets lost in all the funny, energetic liveliness is Stevo.
Lillard (Scream, Hackers), who can be an insufferably self-indulgent actor, does a nice job of keeping himself relatively toned-down, which is especially impressive considering the type of guy he's playing. When Stevo gets to the point of questioning his own ideals and facing some of the uglier consequences of his lifestyle, Lillard becomes positively endearing. But despite attempts to the contrary, SLC Punk cannot quite reach the richer depths it grasps for, because it doesn't have the material to support the large dramatic distance Stevo has to travel. It's all a matter of focus. Stevo directs a great amount of it off himself, and onto his environs. We're not shown how he came to adopt his ideals in the first place, nor do we get to see much of him acting out on those ideals. Stevo spends most of the time onscreen either telling us about his buddies or giving us lessons on the punk attitude, only rarely showing us moments of him behaving unaware of our presence. It's entertaining stuff for the most part, except it never allows us very far into Stevo's head. And so, when he experiences an earth-shattering sea change in his view of the world by the end, it feels more trite than it should. It's like trying to learn about someone who'll only show you photos of relatives. The pictures may be interesting to behold, even enlightening in some ways, but they'll only have so much to say about the person with the green hair and angry attitude standing beside you.