Running Stumbled (documentary)

The people in “Running Stumbled” are old and caustic, and they speak casually of death, even of murder. They pop prescription pills constantly and live in total squalor in a dilapidated Louisiana shack. All of this makes for a film that is very funny, but also very disturbing, considering it’s a documentary.

Shot like a home movie on non-widescreen video, “Running Stumbled” is an attempt by the filmmaker, John Maringouin, to capture his drug-addict ex-con retired-Dadaist-artist father in his natural habitat. Dad, named Johnny Roe Jr., lives with a woman named Marie, a creaky old thing who aids and abets Johnny’s habits as he assists hers. They probably loved each other at one point, but what passes between them now is far more hostile, though the word “love” does get tossed around occasionally.

Johnny’s first wife, the filmmaker’s mother, was named Carolyn; she’s dead, and the film leaves it vague what exactly happened to her. I thought I heard Johnny say he attacked some police and also his own family in 1968, but that can’t be true, can it? And did I just hear him swear to his son, “I never tried to kill you”? Is that what he was in prison for?

Johnny’s friend Uncle Stanley lives nearby with his ancient mother, who watches “Wheel of Fortune” while waiting to die. Speaking of which, Marie herself keeps saying she’s going to die anytime, and has even narrowed it down to “this September.” In regards to that timetable, Johnny is indifferent.

John Maringouin says he hadn’t seen his father in decades before showing up to make his movie, and it’s obvious there is no familiarity or warmth between them. John treats his dad the way Clarice Starling treated Hannibal Lecter: interested in his behavior, but wary of getting too close.

The film, which alternates between laugh-out-loud funny moments of rural depravity and chilling depictions of human indecency, is John’s effort to — what? Explain his father? Analyze him? Or just document him? Maybe he thought no one would ever believe what his insane old dad was like unless he had it on tape. Heck, I’ve seen the tape and I still can’t believe these people exist. This is “Freaks” for the 21st century.

B+ (1 hr., 21 min.; Not Rated, probably R for scattered F-words.)