Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 49 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 9; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 4.
Our star ratings (0-5): 3
Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind.
Director Jim Mickle also co-wrote the script (with Nick Damici) of this violence-filled film noir. Based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale, it is set in East Texas in 1989 when the mobile phones that preceded cell phones required a large battery operated base with a big antenna, with the user frequently saying into the mouthpiece, “You’re fading out…” There is no fading of the intensity of this thriller that makes several unexpected twists before arriving at its bloody conclusion. This is not a film for most church groups, though its exploration of the nature of manhood and the impact of violence does offer food for thought.
Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall), owner of a picture-framing store, lives happily with his wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw) and Jordan, their young son in a town where everyone knows him as a friendly mild mannered citizen. Thus when he kills would-be burglar Freddy Russell on a hot July night, they are all surprised, some of them thinking that he didn’t “have it in him” to do such a thing. Richard himself must have thought that, and is very unsettled by the experience, despite the assurance by his friend and chief of police Ray Price (played by co-writer Nick Damici) that the killing was a clear act of self-defense. The cop also mentions the chilling news that the deceased’s father Ben (Sam Shepard) has just been released from prison after serving a long sentence.
When Ray tells Richard that Russell is being buried that afternoon, the conscience-bothered man drives out to the cemetery to observe from a distance the two men interring the body—a preacher and the gravedigger. However, there also is another observer, this one startling Richard when he walks up to the car. It is the grizzled Ben, who says that things must be set right concerning his son. His remark about the newspaper picture of Richard with his wife and young son leaves no doubt in Richard’s mind of his intention.
At the police station Ray, however, tells Richard that he cannot do anything based on such a nebulous threat. But, when Ben continues to hang around town, even showing up near Jordan’s school, and breaking into and entering the Dane’s house while they were away, Ray orders police protection for the Danes. That night he places a guard by the door of Jordan’s room, while he and several of his men crouch outside in the trees and bushes. It is appropriately storming, the cops enduring a thorough soaking. Tension mounts as they nervously check a car that has driven by.
Inside the worried Richard and Ann try to sleep. Cut to a shot of Ben standing by the bed of the sleeping Jordan. Outside the door the cop lies sprawled on the floor. Richard awakens, gets up, and seeing the unconscious policeman tries to enter Jordan’s room, but the door is locked. Alerted by the noise, Ray and his men rush into the house. By the time they break into the bedroom, all they find is Jordan and the open window through which Ben has escaped. How did he get past all the police outside? He didn’t, Ray surmises; he never left the house when he broke in, hiding all the time in the ceiling crawlspace.
Ray is picked up by the police. When Richard is at the station he makes a startling discovery: spotting the reward poster for Freddy Russell, he is puzzled by the picture—it is not that of the man he had killed. Ray puts him off, saying that it is a bad photo and that in his state of shock he does not recognize the man. Confused, Richard goes home deeply troubled, and later sneaks out of the house to return to the police station. Before he can get out of the car he sees Ben being forced into a car by Ray and a couple other cops. One sticks the prisoner with a hypodermic needle. Richard follows them, stopping well behind them at the edge of town and observing them dragging the unconscious Ben onto a train track. Dousing him with liquor, the cop breaks the bottle and drops the broken glass by the body. They drive away, and Richard sits in his car watching. Far off we hear the horn of an approaching train. The signal crossing lights flash. Still Richard sits there–so long that we wonder if this will be the point, the moral of missed opportunity. It isn’t, of course, and Richard springs into action, barely dragging Ben out of the path of the on-coming train.
Now Richard has to decide what to do with the man whom he had rescued. The man who had menaced his son. The man who, when he wakes up, still thinks Richard is the killer of his son. How Richard convinces Ben that his son is still alive is a gruesome episode in itself, one that prepares us for still worse to come. It will involve the Texas mafia, the Federal Witness Protection Program, the pornographic video underground, and even worse—the production of snuff videos. These dark developments are somewhat lightened by the presence of Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson), a Houston private detective who raises pigs as a sideline. A Korean War buddy whom Ben summons to his side to track down his missing son, Jim arrives in a blazing red Cadillac convertible nicknamed “red bitch” that has a pair of Texas longhorns mounted on the grill, tiger-striped orange seat covers, and an over-sized pair of velvet dice dangling above the hula dancer mounted on the dashboard. Thus the middle section, dominated by Johnson’s delightful performance, becomes a buddy movie. Unfortunately, the film in the last portion becomes a bloody gore-fest that Quentin Tarantino smoking too much pot might have produced, spoiling an otherwise fascinating thriller.
Part of the film’s fascination for me is the wealth of details that the director and writer provide. These include:
-The husband and wife in their living room cleaning up the terrible mess of blood and bone and brain fragments splattered over their landscape picture, the wall, and the couch. This scene reminded me of the one in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in which Harvey Keitel’s character carefully cleans up the blood-spattered back seat of a car where a man had been shot, also at point blank range. Ann even gets on her husband for choosing the wrong couch to replace their blood-soaked one.
-In a restaurant scene while Ben talks he fashions a little animal out of his soda straw; we see quick shots of an adorable little boy watching him from another booth. Ben goes to make a telephone call, and as he passes by the boy’s booth, he drops the little animal on the tabletop for the boy. We see also the crumpled straw with which the child had unsuccessfully tried to make his own animal. This goes well with the shot in Jordan’s bedroom when Ben had the opportunity to “set things right” in regard to his own son, but passed on. He might be a hardened criminal, but he is not a child killer—though he does decide to rid the earth of his own son when he discovers that he has descended into such depravity that even he cannot stomach.
-Other details we have already mentioned concern the bizarre Cadillac that Jim Bob drives.
If you can stand screen violence, I half-commend this flawed film to you because of its many delights, but that third act does indeed spoil it for many folk. It is hard to say what the filmmakers’ take on violence is—condemnation, as in Clint Eastwood’s famous Western Unforgiven, or gleeful acceptance, as in Quentin Tarentino’s Django Unchained. Whatever it is, you probably will not use this film with a group. Nonetheless, it is worth time reflecting on, and for me, wishing that the filmmakers had chosen a different path from the vigilantism to conclude it.
The full review with a set of 8 reflection/discussion questions will be in the July issue of Visual Parables, available at the Visual Parables Store.