King of the Ants examines what happens when a normal, ordinary man is made to kill an innocent person. Director Stuart Gordon compared it to Psycho, as a film that breaks all audience expectations of how a protagonist is supposed to behave and of how a plot is supposed to progress. It explores violence in a gut-wrenchingly realistic manner that is about as far from the idea of "glamorized violence" as is imaginable.
Sean, played by newcomer Chris McKenna, is a young man with no plans, talents or ambitions who works as a housepainter. An electrician named Duke (George Wendt) brings Sean to meet his own boss, Ray Mathews (Daniel Baldwin). Ray is a businessman who lacks ethics, but prefers to keep his hands clean by having someone else perform his dirty work. He wants to avoid legal difficulties, but has no reservations about asking Sean if he would be willing to perform "immoral" activities, and wants Sean to tail a political candidate named Eric Gatley, played by an uncredited Ron Livingston. Sean accomplishes two things: he brings Mathews the disturbing news that Gatley is in contact with a television news reporter, and he becomes infatuated with Eric's wife, Susan, played by Kari Wuhrer.
Mathews tells Sean that the situation now requires someone who is "ruthless" enough to "eliminate" whatever gets in the way. Sean is really not a cold-blooded killer, but he doesn't have a reason not to, and he rationalizes over what it would take to get him to go through with this. He is immoral enough to take on the job. As a non-professional, he carries out an awkward, painful killing that is far from a sanitized, "bang, bang, you're dead" type of violence. Sean is forced to watch Gatley's gruesome, protracted death, and is haunted afterward by the image.
Duke and Mathews are not pleased, as Sean was expected to be an incompetent who would fail at the task and merely scare Gatley. The TV news connects Gatley's death to his investigation of corruption in city hall, which brings Mathews the attention he had been trying to avoid. Duke warns Sean to leave town, but Sean demands to be paid for his work, and informs him that he has left incriminating evidence with a friend. Mathews wants Sean to vanish, but doesn't want to get involved in murder, so they decide to turn Sean into a vegetable by locking him in a shed and using his head as a golf ball. The beatings produce a horrific series of hallucinations and revert Sean to an animal state. Now feral, Sean kills Duke and escapes.
Caked in blood and sporting a baseball-sized lump on his head, Sean goes to the homeless shelter run by Susan. She senses that she has some kind of connection with Sean, and brings him home to stay with her. Susan tells him that people shouldn't be alone, because they go crazy and do stupid things, unaware of the irony that she is alone and just did a stupid thing by bringing Sean home. It is not long before she recognizes Sean as the one who had followed her husband, and she finds her husband's files in his belongings. She tries to detain him, but dies in an ensuing scuffle. Stripped of everything, Sean sets out for retribution against Mathews and his gang.
Sean is a likable person, but when faced with a moral decision becomes about as antihero as antiheroes get. When Mathews proposes a contract murder, Sean immediately begins to haggle over the price. He's apologetic about the deed and doesn't seem to have the heart for it, but he has no real inhibitions regarding it and certainly would like to get Eric out of the way and have a shot at his wife. After his time in the shed, he seems to have little conscience left to guide him.
The title comes from Duke's attempt to figure out which zoo animal Sean reminds him of. His conclusion: an ant. After being beaten into a feral state, Sean speaks of having been reborn as a new person..."an exterminator." Sean's animal survival instinct hardens and he becomes quite an efficient killer by film's end. As he dispatches Mathews' goons, he calmly explains it as just part of nature's cycle.
King of the Ants has many recognizable names in its cast, especially for such a low-budget film. McKenna is the only unknown, and he does a good job of keeping his character sympathetic despite behavior that ranges from scuzzy to reprehensible. George Wendt is very effective playing against type as a thug. Kari Wuhrer has turned in some lousy performances, but here she's nothing less than excellent. She's perfectly cast, as she is able to pull off both the wildness that Sean's imagined version of her calls for and the soulfulness and maturity of the real Susan. Daniel Baldwin may be the weakest of the bunch, as he seems to be channeling DeNiro unsuccessfully.
Connections: Ray's black henchman gets Scatman Crothersed by Sean. In the DVD menu, chapter 13 is titled "dementia."