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In the headlights

Based-on-fact film looks at people who are, literally and figuratively, ‘Stuck’

"Stuck" sticks fairly close to its grisly true story of a nurse's aide who hit a homeless guy with her car and left him to die, stuck in her windshield.

The real woman, Chantal Mallard of Texas, received 50 years for her crime, and now receives the dubious honor of having inspired a movie - albeit a macabre, low-budget affair from a guy (Stuart Gordon) whose credits include "Re-Animator."

Given Gordon's background as a horror-meister, the prologue is surprisingly sympathetic to the motorist, played by Mena Suvari and given the name Brandi.

We meet Brandi on her job, cleaning up the poop left by an Alzheimers patient at the old folks home where she works. She comforts the man, demonstrating a genuine compassion for patients deprived of the ability to return the favor.

Brandi has (literally) a crappy job, she's worked a long shift, and when she goes out for a beer, she also accepts a hit of ecstasy from her no-good boyfriend. "Stuck" succeeds in getting the audience to sympathize with her, up to and until the point she decides to drive.

In the meantime, the story also asks sympathy for its budding victim - Stephen Rea plays a downsized white collar guy evicted from his apartment and on his way to spend his first night in a shelter when he steps off the curb and into the path of the hopped up Brandi.

By now, you've probably picked up on the title's double meaning - Rea's character is stuck in chronic unemployment, Brandi in a thankless job. "Stuck" becomes a horror story about how people react to the pressure of stuck-ness.

It ain't pretty. It does, however, manage to achieve a kind of grisly pull that goes beyond mere exploitation. The movie's most interesting twist is Brandi's strange attitude - Suvari regards the situation as absurdly unfair (naturally so does Tom), and her misplaced sense of grievance brings out the worst in her.

"Why are you doing this to me?" she asks of the stunned victim, who is bleeding to death on her dashboard.

She ignores his plea for help, first drifting about in a state of denial, then cruelly waiting for him to die, then enlisting her self-styled gangsta boyfriend (Russell Hornsby) to hasten the deed.

The movie changes tone a bit here - tragedy becomes farce, and "Stuck" retreats to the safety of black comedy (it plays out a bit like "Misery").

Except that Gordon keeps hinting that he's after something deeper - sidelong looks at homelessness, poverty, selective law enforcement, illegal immigration.

In the world of "Stuck," these persistent problems lead not to engagement or compassion, but isolation and angry self-interest.

Take Brandi. After an adult lifetime of cleaning up No. 2, she is looking out for No. 1.

Everybody else, look out.