Writer and director of 68 Kill (2017), Trent Haaga, hasn’t helmed a film since 2011’s dark comedy Chop. Instead, he’s been contributing behind the scenes, helping write cult darling Cheap Thrills (2013) and hit videogame The Evil Within (2014). While aiding to these successes, it seems he has been mastering his craft. 68 Kill is a dark and dirty romp through southern fried America that manages to subvert gender roles and deliver a film that is ripe with strong powerful female leads.

Based on the novel of the same name from Bryan Smith, 68 Kill starts with the foot on the gas and never lets up. Chip, played by the affable Matthew Gray Gubler, is in love with his prostitute girlfriend Liza (AnnaLynne McCord). When Liza comes up with a plan to rob one of her rich johns, she coerces Chip into assisting her, and things quickly go south. From there, things never get better. Due to a string of unfortunate events, Liza and her woman-dicing slob of a brother Dwayne (Sam Eidson) go on the hunt for Chip, who is also having to deal with falling for Violet (Alisha Boe), crossing a young goth redneck cashier, and participating in a constant game of give and take with the $68,000 dollars he’s inherited from his crime.

68 Kill isn’t an easy movie to sit through but Haaga knows how to play the right chords at the right time. In a movie full of moments that make the viewer feel as dirty as the sickly green kill room on screen, Haaga plays Gubler as the piece of levity to make the film bearable, and even likable. While unrelentingly violent, the movie has an underlying smug grin that knows just how far to push the limit before reeling the viewer back in with doses of raunchy humor and violent slapstick.

Gubler plays Chip pitch perfectly. He’s a slightly neurotic and extremely cowardly man who has allowed strong women to bend him to their will his whole life. McCord as Liza, Chip’s gun-toting, sex-crazed girlfriend, really hits a homerun with this role and continues to distance herself from the preppy queen bee she played in 90210. The story essentially unfolds in three parts, each highlighted by a different bold and powerful female presence. We are used to seeing a woman overcome hardships and difficulties; Haaga showcases the development of Chip, who is able to grow and evolve because of the strength of his female co-stars. Boe and Sheila Vand play Violet and Monica, respectively, and along with McCord all three are leading ladies with distinct voices and personalities. The trio are all beautiful and violent, as well as unapologetically themselves, but work double duty not just as entertaining and fully fleshed out characters but also as the introduction, exposition and climax of the film. Each character is able to do something to inspire growth in the main character that sees him evolve in the one and half hour run time.

It’s an unrelentingly grim adventure that is one half Looney Tunes and one half EC Comics. Haaga presents a neo-pulp thriller that is laced with the blackest humor, sex and violence. The movie has some glaring plot holes and at times it can’t decide how hard it really wants to go, winking a little too obviously at the audience. For the most part, however, it is a deeply unpleasant but incredibly enjoyable film. Haaga definitely has a lot of flair, it just happens to wear a dirty sweaty tank top, and this film will hopefully serve as a stepping stone to another project.

68 Kill was screened at this year’s Boston Underground Film Festival (22 to 26 March 2017).