A review of Legacy of the White Tail Deer Hunter (SXSW 2018)
by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.
Buck (Josh Brolin) is a legendary hunter staring in his own video series. His loyal cameraman Don (Danny McBride) accompanies Buck on a special hunting trip—the first for his son Jaden (Montana Jordan). The hunter’s situation in life is reflected in an old buck deer they site early on the trip—the animal has a huge rack and a sad, grey-looking face. Buck categorizes him as a non-typical specimen, and certainly, this describes Buck well. This film stays within the pattern of films at SXSW 2018 dealing with broken families and the difficult rites of passages for the kids in such a situation.
Set against the backdrop of a city known for its hurricanes, Galveston is the place of refuge for an unlikely couple on the run from the mob. Working as a hitman, Roy is set up by his corrupt boss in New Orleans. In escaping the sting, he also rescues a prostitute by the name of Rocky. Reluctantly bringing her along, Roy chooses Galveston as their destination—a place where they can lay low. Along the escape route, they rescue her little sister Tiffany from the girl’s abusive step-dad.
It is quite fascinating to watch the trajectory of the Zellner Brothers, David and Nathan, as they have continued to fine-tune their unique style in filmmaking. One may wonder if they got into directing and producing because they wanted to act, or they act because it makes producing and directing that much more efficient. Like the Coen brothers, it is unclear whose creativity is the driving force or if they share all the creative decisions that go into a film. In any case, the sibling team has risen to be among the kings of independent cinema, and it is appropriate to mention them in the same breath as the Duplass brothers (in my eyes, a huge compliment).
While I am impressed with their craft and their success, I also note that the content of their films can be quite challenging on multiple levels. On a conventional level, it is fun to enjoy the strange juxtaposition of opposites and the snarky humor that is finely crafted into their dialog—at times, quite eloquent. As their success has grown, their films progressively seem less like low-budget home-movies and more like refined studio productions. What has not changed is the complexity of the heroes, if there are any, and the vague resolve of a film’s one big question if stated at all. This evolution is not necessarily a fault in the filmmakers, but certainly, such style can be risky in an attempt to reach a more traditional audience. A Brechtian style might prove to be a limiting barrier as their films start finding their way onto streaming sites. The average Netflix viewers are certainly quite different from the more open-minded festival audiences. Festival fans expect to be stretched; they are more willing to take a risk in identifying with these Zellner characters. Time will tell if their unique style will attract a more diverse set of fans.
In Damsel, the brothers try their hand at directing a Western. At times, the dialog in this film takes on an old-time cadence and phrasing reminiscent of O Brother Where Art Thou. The opening scene (at a square dance) was masterfully performed and directed. Yet after it shows promise as a traditional western, the plot twists divert it to become more of an Unforgiven sort of tragedy. Typical of the other Zellner brother films I have seen, the action need not make sense (not even historically or geographically); the story must only be plausible for it to work. The brothers are good at depicting a realistic corrupt or tragic human condition in need of redemption.
However, where might that redemption come from? On a less conventional level, the film makes a sharp statement about religion. In a Coen-like realization similarly expressed by the lawman in No Country for Old Men, this film is bookended by two parsons who each come to the same realization that they cannot make a difference among the "savages." Note that the term as used here does not mean the native Americans. As a matter of fact, the only native American is more erudite than any other character in the film. The savages are those who are immune to the Gospel—or too far gone for it to have any effect; the preachers cannot help them. As the film opens at a stage stop, the old parson (Rober Forster) passes on the mantle of his pastorate to the reluctant newbie (David Zellner). Apparently, Parson Henry as he is now known has little experience or aptitude for the job but accepts the role anyway.
Significant is the worn Bible the old parson hands to Henry. Many of the pages are missing—used for kindling and personal hygiene. Later, Parson Henry also uses a page or two to blow his nose. In the world of Damsel, the Word is reduced to a toiletry, completely without spiritual power and useful in the only the most humble of ways. While potentially offensive on one level, the disrespect is no more than Christ himself experienced while on earth. While I see no reason to believe the Zellners had that particular metaphor in mind, the actions provide a moment of pause for any Christian as the crucifixion is replayed symbolically in those ignoble references. (Perhaps the pause is for more than a moment.)
Finally, the parson himself, not fully committed to the ways of the cloth, begs the Indian (uncredited, apparently) to allow him to join the tribe—to fold his identity into the nobler savage way of life—he is refused. Later, he offers himself as a faithful companion in honorable marriage to the widowed Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), but she too scoffs at him. Old Time Religion seems to have no companion in this Zellner film, but as one observes the drift away from Christianity in postmodern times, perhaps these brothers are only the messengers.
At the world premiere of Age Out (originally titled Friday’s Child )at SXSW 2018, I became somewhat annoyed with the question and answer session that followed the screening. As typical at these festivals, fans often stick with safe questions about technique rather than dive into deeper issues raised by the story. Instead of exploring the meanings behind the film, those asking questions that night seemed more interested in talking about aspect ratios and camera lenses. For this viewer, the film triggered some dark memories, and as such, the movie was unusually visceral.
Be assured; this is a sensory film. The movie demonstrates the creative talent of director A.J. Edwards, more or less a prodigy of the legendary Terrence Malick. Yes, most of the film is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, and the simple titles are reminiscent of a Dragnet episode. This look was purposefully crafted, providing a sense of confinement not possible in widescreen. Likewise, with the retro look, it is hard to sense a satisfying future—we find ourselves stuck in the cycle.
The stark experience enhances the crisis found in the plot, which can now lead me away from exploring the wonders of the film craft and examining the more profound message found in the story. Others can continue to discuss Edward’s style—I will not be surprised; assuredly, critics will be talking about him more often from here on out.
However, due to personal experience, this reviewer cannot help but focus on the plot. The story fits well into the overall theme that emerged from the collection of films screened at SXSW 2018—broken families, abandoned and troubled kids. Emerging young actor Tye Sheridan plays Richie, an 18-year old who times out of Texas's foster care system. His birthday means that the state is no longer obliged to provide a family for the kid.
It becomes apparent that Richie has not had a good go in the system. He seems to both relish and fear the opportunity to try life on his own. Initially, he finds a construction job and meager housing in a distressed Waco neighborhood. Quickly, the efforts required to avoid all the pitfalls of life in this environment begin to wear down the young man.
Richie is a character who will evoke strong empathy. He seems to be a sweet kid, but we soon find out he is not innocent. There is plenty of blame to go around, but Richie makes some painfully bad decisions. One choice is to hang out with an older boy named Swim. Caleb Landry Jones plays this fascinating character with the same deranged kineticism imposed by Heath Ledger when channeling the Joker in the Dark Knight. This criminal-minded young adult takes Richie under his wing, but his sort of mentorship is not what Richie needs at this time and place in his life.
The movie's original title, Friday’s Child, evokes imagery from the familiar English poem "Monday’s Child." As you watch the film, consider which characters represent the Wednesday’s and Friday’s children in the verse. Edwards also admitted that his screenplay is based loosely on Fedor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. With this knowledge, I dare not provide any more spoilers; let us call this a tragedy that ends with a glimmer of hope, and it is the source of this hope that is most profound.
Any parent watching this film will agonize over the idea of their own barely-adult child entering such a world. Let me confirm from my own experience that this kind of abandonment is fertile ground for many bad things to happen. On my own the last half of my senior year in high school, I lived in a nearly-condemned house with no furniture. By the grace of God, I survived, but adulthood came upon this naive teenager like a sharp slap in the face. I have many regrets about my life during the six months I was on my own before moving into a college dorm. I was just 17 years old.
Overall, Age Out evokes three important truths about abandoned or lost children in a postmodern milieu. (Admittedly, some of this stems from my experience as a teenager on my own.) The first is that children who are abandoned to the streets hurt themselves and hurt others. With some, it is a matter of fierce pride and independence that sets them on this rocky road—a rebellion against the very structures that protect them. For others, perhaps like Richie, it is fate—a spiral of deepening bad luck. In either case, the paradox is confounding—these may not be bad kids, but they are certainly capable (dare I say likely?) of doing bad things. The spiral deepens because few have the means, the character, or the will to reverse the course. I was simply lucky in this regard. Despite my bad choices, I found friends in college who helped me escape—but it took several years to break the cycle completely, and, regrettably, I left damage in my wake.
Secondly, a kid can hardly make it right out of high school on their own, even if they get a diploma or GED and work diligently in the jobs they can get. Few are prepared with the skills and experience to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. The pressures and temptations of the world cruelly erode any hope that a special kid can buck the odds and double these problems when these same teens get pregnant. If the kid’s parents can provide shelter, they have a chance—but this arrangement can wreck the entire family if it was already weak. In any circumstance, these kids need someone or something to hold them accountable to honor the ways that make survival possible.
Thirdly, kids easily find the wrong kind of companionship on the street. Young people can be painfully idealistic, and as such, they quickly rationalize their choices. They may find a way forward, but the act often—too often—becomes the very thing that makes matters worse. What looks good on the surface ends up hurting them and leaves the kid more troubled than before. While not an excuse, one should understand how the innocent-but desperate will follow a shape-shifting pied piper who seems to have all the answers. Just remember, these kids have few alternatives.
Watch this wonderful film and weep for Richie and all the kids on the street—regardless of how they got there. Enjoy the filmmaker’s techniques, but use them to take you deeper into the story. Think about Richie the next time you see one of these young people on the street hustling some scam or in your neighborhood selling questionable products or door to door. Or perhaps they have become invisible—you may not see them at all. In any case, consider why our support systems cannot stop them from hurting themselves and what best course of action you can take to become part of the solution. If you become motivated, one helpful step is to learn more. Check out the Upbring organization for more background on the problem and for ways you can get involved.
Note: As the reviewer, I must disclose my bias in that I had a couple of minor roles in the production, and I consider the former CEO of Upbring to be a close friend.
Anyone from an older generation may recall a more innocent tone to kid’s sports than is found today. It is quite common, and should I say natural, for a parent to live vicariously through their children. Whether the parent was once good at sports or not, the child’s accomplishments are often taken as a commentary on the quality of all the parental genes that authored them. Secondly, it is an unstated obligation parents have to support their child. In some cases, we parents are not so good at recognizing proper boundaries to that support. Might that support include a public and vicious verbal undressing of “blue” even when the umpire is a kid? Does involvement include a boisterous pushing match with a parent from the other team?
A great name for this narrative feature, but perhaps the film could have just as accurately been titled No Boundaries. Laura (Vera Farmiga) is a divorced mother who is forced to drive her 85-year-old dad (Christopher Plummer) across the country so he can live with her sister. This duty is a major disruption since Jack has been kicked out of the nursing home for selling drugs. Along for the ride are a number of rescued pets—their loyalty and cuteness serve as a counterpoint to the flawed human characters.
A surprise hit at SXSW 2018; this film was expanded from the notable 2016 short created and performed by actor/director Jim Cummings. The short was a one-man show—13 minutes of monologue in one take. His character is Jimmy, a decorated police officer who is socially awkward (perhaps an understatement). Among festival viewers, there was speculation that the bizarre-but-poignant character’s rant at his mother’s funeral may not translate well into a feature-length story.
The full version begins with the same eulogy. The title of the film refers to the Bruce Springsteen song Jimmy brings on CD to the funeral—he had choreographed a dance, but the player will not work. At the premiere, Cummings seemed to imply that he could not actually get the rights to use the song in the film. In any case, the lyrics indeed provide some insight into this character. Impulsively, Jimmy goes ahead with the awkward performance much to the amusement or horror of the mourners.
Obviously, this is a character-driven film. Likened to a Don Quixote with a cheesy mustache, Jimmy is a man dedicated to his ideal of what a man should be. He is loyal, but without realizing it, he often hurts and offends those he loves. Attention deficient, Jimmy is quick-tempered at times, and then just as easily, he is quick to accept blame and forgives others who disrespect him.
Jimmy is a divorced dad, and he struggles to maintain a most tenuous relationship with the love of his life—his pre-teen daughter Chrystal (Kendal Farr). Even when you aren’t socially awkward, it is hard for a dad to navigate parenting of a girl at this age.
There is one brief side story one may easily miss. The moment becomes significant in the context of the character’s development. During one patrol, Jimmy comes across a 16-year old girl (Jacqueline Doke) having sex with two boys in a car. He dismisses the group but insists on taking the frustrated girl home. She hears Jimmy’s lecture on the way, rolling her eyes at the reprimand. Later in the story, Jimmy drives past her school, and the same girl is sitting outside. The camera provides a slowed close up of the girls face as the car passes. In her face, you do not find, not quite the same sneer of disrespect, but perhaps now a hint of admiration and wonder.
At first, the viewer might think that the gaze was returned by Jimmy—perhaps one of his quirks is a lust for teenaged bad girls. But this is not what Cummings as director/editor chose to confirm—I take the shot not to be a POV angle. Instead of a two-way exchange, one might take it that the girl alone has the gaze—and her expression is the purpose of the shot. Instead of branding him as a creep worthy of additional scorn, the moment allows one to respect Jimmy a little from his awkward-but-innocent attempt to care for the girl. The girl gets it—and I get it.
For the story to work in such a character-centered film, it is vital that viewers care about the hero. Apparently, the judges at SXSW agreed—it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for narrative features. Jimmy is an earnest man who crusades in a world that has grown weary of high ideals. Perhaps one may roll their eyes at what he finds true and trustworthy, but one can never suggest Jimmy’s character is bad. While Jimmy represents the kind of person we might easily brand Loser (with a capital L), Cummings succeeds in putting a little of our own quirks into the character. There but for the grace of God go I.
As portrayed, Jimmy is a heroic protagonist in an absurd fight against himself—he is his own worst enemy. Nevertheless, like us, Jimmy is worthy of empathy in spite of his shortcomings. We can hope for the best for this broken everyman—one who deserves our pathos, not our scorn.
In a postmodern society enjoying the benefits of the sexual revolution, the roles played by a man and woman in a relationship is under intense scrutiny. Looking back, people in our culture tend to scoff at the stereotypical 1950s American wife who looked good in her dress and pearls as she made her man his favorite dinner. This couple is now replaced with the egalitarian version, with the male abandoning the hubris of the stereotypical husband who once disdained what was considered women’s work. Now the male can, and is expected to, do everything the housewife once did while the woman can do anything she wants to try. Meanwhile, no one takes the role romancer. The lover-beloved relationship begins as a one-sided pursuit—the lover is motivated to give by only the hope that the beloved will return the love.
No doubt. A Quiet Place is well written and acted—and directed. No doubt, the movie is a fantastic horror picture filled with plenty of seat-jumping moments. Yet the initial success among the pop-culture horror crowd may overshadow the deeper qualities of the film. Here I will focus on two of them.