Stars: Shane Dean, Slade Hall, Cavin Gray Schneider
I've been looking forward to Deadfall Trail for quite some time, even though it appears to be a backup movie, made when director Roze and executive producer Robert Guthrie failed to raise enough funding for the project they really wanted to do. They only had $100,000 to play with, still a decent amount for an indie Arizona picture, but it was a surprise hit at the Phoenix Film Festival earlier this year, enough so that it landed a limited theatrical run at Harkins Theaters. I think I missed it in favour of Lovely, Still, which was such a great film that I never regretted my choice, but I kept hoping I'd be able to catch up with this one anyway. Shot in northern Arizona over three weeks, it's an intelligent piece, supposedly based on a true story about a three week survival trip in the Kaibab National Forest. It follows three men who head out into the wilderness to hunt, to commune with nature and to embark upon a peyote fuelled spirit quest.
Given that almost the entire film unfolds with only three actors, the quality of their work is even more important than it would usually be. In many ways the picture is the acting equivalent of the survivalist trip the characters go on. Just as the three men who journey into the wilderness with only a knife, a bottle of water and a garbage bag each have to rely on their own skills without any obvious support structure to fall back on, so must the three actors who play them. They're all there is, so they can't sit back on their heels and wait for any quirky character turns from the supporting cast to make up for any of their shortcomings. They have to make it work themselves and the key success of the film is that they do, admirably. I've seen two of these three before, in short films and smaller parts in features, but these are the most substantial roles they've been given and all three of them live up to the challenge.
The leader of the three is John, a veteran survivalist who really knows his stuff, and is played by Slade Hall. He's the one I've never seen before, though he has a few years of experience in films for people like Chris LaMont, Stephen C Krystek and the Ronalds Brothers, all recognisable local names. John is at home in the woods and gives the impression that he'd never leave them if he didn't have a family. He's also the common factor between the other two, having taught Julian his expertise on previous journeys and introducing Paul to them this time out. The voicemail he leaves Paul after he leaves for his house to begin this journey bookends the film and provides us with some of its philosophy. It's certainly a thoughtful film, which moves along slowly but surely and fully intends to invoke our brains as much as our guts. While the action is phrased well, it's a character based drama first and foremost.
Paul is Cavin Gray Schneider, credited here without his last name and making a solid impression in his debut film. He's a man attempting to make up for a childhood in which he moved around a lot without much courage to talk to anyone. Now he's living life until he dies. Schneider would go on to do capable work as the lead character's best friend in a Stephen King dollar baby called Everything's Eventual, and finally to a bit part in Piranha which I totally didn't notice. With such promise, he should land substantial roles in substantial pictures. I hope that happens. The third of the three actors is Shane Dean, who is a tour de force as Julian, a man with demons to chase. I've watched Dean grow in artistic stature and he keeps on getting better. He was in Everything's Eventual too, but the biggest role I'd seen him in prior to this was as White Manson in The Death Factory Bloodletting. As much as I love that film as a guilty pleasure, he's far better here.
While John is the leader of this little expedition, it's Julian who drives the plot because he makes it all about him. I couldn't help but see a comparison with John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, even though it explores very different emotions. In that film three men trek out into the great unknown too and while it's Walter Huston's character who leads the way, the story is all about Humphrey Bogart's and so it's his character who dominates, not just in screen time but through the best material. The same applies here. John is sidelined even from the beginning as it's plain that it's all about Julian. 'The things we fear in life are the things we can't control,' he says early on. He's not afraid of anything in particular, but he's afraid of how he might react to something he can't control. That turns out to be much of the plot because that's precisely what happens, but I'll avoid the details because spoilers would be easy to throw out here.
The film looks pristine and professional even in the many night shots, a testament to the power and quality of Red One cameras which Hollywood producer Dean Devlin has suggested 'marks the tipping point of the democratization of filmmaking.' This picture is precisely what he's talking about, serious filmmaking power put into the hands of people without huge budgets and helping them to create. The cinematographer was Tari Segal, who deserves special mention as she turns the woods into a fourth character, one that changes as the film progresses. There are beautiful shots here but there are also scary ones, especially as the journey out becomes the journey back with a whole new dynamic to flavour everything. While this quest aimed in part to commune with nature, Nature has other ideas. Footage shot for Julian's peyote dream is a glorious example, as the usual dusty and muted browns and greens erupt into violent colour.
Another reason for the success of the film is surely that the crew knew each other well, many of them having worked together since 2002. Working a sixteen day shoot in the wilds of northern Arizona as part of a cast and crew of thirty must be something of a bonding experience. The lack of the comforts of home probably helped a focus on work too, the actors shooting for ten hours a day, then rehearsing for three or four more after dinner. They were rewarded for their efforts not just by the film itself but by the solidarity of the crew. When they were called upon to eat bugs, as their characters didn't take food with them into the wilderness, choosing instead to live off the land and their wits, many of the crew members up to the director himself did likewise. In such a relaxed working environment, it's all the more impressive that they pulled off such a tense and admirably dark story. It isn't what I expected, but that's no bad thing. It'll resonate.