Greg didn’t mean to kill his boss.
Granted, he wasn’t thrilled about being fired. And maybe Greg did stand up a little quickly as his boss was patting him on the shoulder and telling him it was the “beginning of your new life.” But he didn’t know the guy was going to fall backward, hit his head on something and just … expire.
Still, what’s done is done. He might have avoided a pink slip for the moment, but killing a person comes with its own issues. So Greg does what any good employee (who accidentally killed his boss) might do: He props the man up against the corner window and covers the corpse with curtains. Not as good as sweeping the body under the rug, but it’ll do in a pinch.
He tells his boss’s admin that he’s going out for a bite to eat—though, unfortunately, he leaves his wallet behind. He ducks into the pub across the street and runs into a strange woman.
“You’re real,” the woman, Isabel, says. “You know you’re real, right?”
Greg is puzzled. But when Isabel invites him to sit down, he does. “You need an alibi, don’t you?” she asks, pointing to the corpse pressed up against the window in the office building next door. “You do not want to spend this life in prison.”
It seems Isabel feels somehow responsible for “this life,” as she calls it. “Let’s just say it’s kind of my fault that this world exists,” she tells Greg. But Isabel has a solution: Go and grab the amulet from the man in the bathroom. The amulet, she says, contains yellow crystals that allow “real” people the ability to manipulate matter in this fake world they find themselves in.
The man holding those crystals is real, too, but he turns out not to be much of a problem: He’s passed out cold, slumped halfway off the toilet. So Greg takes the amulet away and hands it to Isabel—informing her of the condition of the guy while he’s at it.
“Great!” she says. “Get back in there and get the wallet! Drinks on him.”
Greg dutifully gets up to retrieve the wallet and, while he’s gone, Isabel quietly slips a yellow crystal into his drink.
“This is the beginning of your new life,” the boss told Greg just minutes before. He couldn’t have known how prescient those words were.
From the moment Greg takes the yellow crystal, his life is basically divided into two separate worlds. Isabel insists that the world they currently find themselves in—a world filled with graffiti and crime and hunger and problems—is simply a construct, an elaborate game of make-believe. She insists that most people, and things, within that world are not real at all.
We’ll set Isabel’s explanation to the side for a moment and focus on one of these “unreal” people: Greg’s daughter, Emily. Real or not, she clearly loves her dad, as flawed as he is. And from Emily’s perspective, she doesn’t her father casting off a fake reality. Rather, she sees Greg getting sucked into a delusional existence powered by Isabel’s drugs.
Emily doesn’t have many tools to bring Greg more fully into her reality, of course; just love and persistence. She scours the streets to find him. Once she does, Emily leaves her picture with him, with her phone number on the back. “Just call me when you’re ready,” she pleads. And Emily does her best to enlist the help of her brother, Arthur, too, even though Greg’s pulled him through the emotional wringer a few too many times for Arthur to get completely onboard with Emily’s attempt to save their dad.
A fast-food worker gives Greg a couple of chicken sandwiches, telling him that they’d have to throw the foot out if it sits for too long in the joint anyway. Isabel reveals later that the fast-food worker wound up being one of the “real” world’s richest philanthropists, handing out $500,000 to anyone who asked.
For his part, Greg cares for Isabel. But he cares for his daughter as well. Eventually he has to choose between the two, and that choice proves to be difficult, sacrificial … and the right choice to make.
At a party, a man entertains a group of people with his theories about hell, arguing that it might not be such a bad place after all. He thinks that it’s likely filled with booze and orgies and barbecue, and that every now and then a “devil representative” comes by and tells hell’s citizens that heaven will be looking in shortly, so they should all pretend to be miserable for a while.
A woman at the same party talks about how her grandmother told her that the universe sits on the back of a tortoise. When the woman (as a child) asked her what the tortoise was standing on, her grandmother said seriously, “another tortoise,” and that tortoise stood on another, and so on.
Sometimes, the apparent powers that the crystals grant to Isabel and Greg can look like magic.
Greg and Isabel quickly land in a sexual relationship. They apparently have sex in a roller-rink bathroom, their still-skated feet jutting out of their cozy bathroom stall. In their much more luxurious existence—the place that Isabel calls the real world—they make out in their own swimming pool (perhaps naked beneath the water, though it’s difficult to tell) and entwine with each other in what appears to be a shower. (We see lots of skin, but nothing critical.) The two kiss frequently.
In the world that Isabel calls a fabrication, she works as a sometime prostitute. We see her pull her top down (revealing a great deal of her bra and lots of cleavage) to entice a would-be John. She gets into a car with another client, returning to Greg several hours later.
Other prostitutes dress in revealing garb. A man drops his pants and exposes his rear end—apparently intending it to be a sexual invitation to Greg. A guy lounges around without a shirt. A man grabs a woman’s rear end.
The body of Greg’s boss eventually falls out of the window Greg propped him up against. Those who see the body fall and land (on top of a van) believe the guy committed suicide. Someone has his throat apparently cut. A man gets shot three times and apparently dies. An energetic protest and a swanky party collide, leading to a great deal of pushing and shouting and riotous-looking behavior. A man and woman beat up another guy and leave him in the middle of the road, unconscious.
At a roller rink, Greg and Isabel use their “powers” to knock people over and, at least once, fling someone over the guard wall surrounding the rink. Greg causes a light fixture to smack someone in the head. When they eventually skate away, most everyone is lying on the rink floor, apparently unconscious. At another juncture, when Isabel and Greg are verbally harassed by a neighborhood thug with a gun—he’s yelling out a van window to pay for the privilege of walking through his neighborhood—Greg psychically crushes the vehicle like a soda can.
When Isabel and Greg find their way to what Isabel says is the real world, Greg wakes up to find a hose connected to his nose—with the other end of the hose attached to a huge vat of floating, disembodied brains. When he and a clinician remove the hose, red, gooey stuff seems to spill out or get sucked back in to Greg’s nose.
A device that (Isabel says) sends people to the real world may, at the end of the movie, may more likely be a gun, which someone points at their own face and uses it to “escape.”
Nearly 25 f-words and another dozen s-words. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “h—” and five misuses of God’s name. Several middle fingers are flipped—including while someone’s getting a mugshot taken.
Isabel uses different sorts of crystals to break through what she has characterized as this “fake” world. The yellow crystals seem to allow for manipulation of properties within that world (Greg and Isabel light and extinguish candles from a distance with them, and later they remotely push people down.) Rarer blue crystals actually yank people out of the “fake” world and into a much nicer one—one that Greg had imagined (or remembered) for weeks or months before.
The crystals, the movie indirectly tells us, aren’t Greg’s first encounter with mind-altering substances. Trying to refill a prescription (likely for opioid painkillers) takes precedence over an important meeting with his boss. And when Emily tries to talk her brother, Arthur, into helping her help their father, Arthur reminds her of all the “injuries” that Greg has had over the years—excuses, Arthur suggests, to take powerful painkillers. (After getting fired and killing his boss, Greg also goes straight to a bar and orders a double of whiskey without ice.)
But the crystals certainly escalate Greg’s dereliction. He’s homeless and perpetually addled. We dimly hear someone tell Emily (a conversation registered by Greg as something faintly taking place in the “fake” world) that she shouldn’t get too close to him in his present state: He could be violent. He smokes marijuana, too. (Greg eventually seeks help for his addictions.)
[Spoiler Warning] Despite what Isabel and Greg believe, though, these crystals are, in the end, just drugs—hallucinogens that form a false reality. While Greg believes he’s simply a visitor to a made-up world with made-up people, his daughter, Emily, knows the truth: Instead of slumming in a grimy fake world, Greg’s drug use has helped him fabricate a sunnier and much more toxic one.
Characters also drink wine and champagne, and Isabel smokes cigarettes.
Greg vomits after taking several crystals. Isabel and Greg steal things, from wallets to cars. Isabel seems deeply jealous of Greg’s daughter and her place in his heart. Someone zips up his fly after exiting a restroom.
Red pill or blue pill?
That’s the choice that the mysterious Morpheus offers Neo near the beginning of The Matrix. Take one pill, and you go back to your dead-end, hum-drum life. Take the other, and you’ll discover what the world really looks like.
Consider Bliss the anti-Matrix. Here, take the pill—the crystals, in this case—and, sure, you’ll be transported to a different “reality” … just like people who consume illicit drugs and hallucinogens often are. But there’s nothing real about it.
Bliss reminds us that, yes, life can be hard. We can all wish for a little escape hatch sometimes, to go, even temporarily, to a better place. It’s human. It’s natural. Given the nature of our fallen world, you can even argue that there’s something spiritual at the core of that impulse.
But most of us know that escape hatches that we manufacture ourselves lead nowhere good. As we drift and dream in our fake world, our real one crumbles around us. And once it does, there are no easy fixes.
But we can fix those wrecked lives, the movie suggests. With love. With support. With our own desire to work at it.
Bliss is a strange, uneven and difficult movie. All the R-rated content should give us plenty of pause, and sometimes this film seems uncertain whether it most wants to give us a trippy fantasy or a gritty, hard morality tale. But in the end, that tale is the takeaway, the fable is the finish. And while I can’t say that redeems the movie, it is nice to see that it offers, at least, the hope of redemption to its own characters.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.