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Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The Middle Toe of the Right Foot (2011)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Jason Wiechert and Johnny Ortiz

Hey, it's October already, so here's a Travis Mills review to kick it off right. I picked this one after being impressed by Johnny Ortiz in The Lakeside Killer, because I noticed his name in the credits here too; but it's also a contemporary adaptation of a classic short story from the public domain, an approach with which Mills is about to go hog wild, aiming at one such per week for the whole of 2013. In this instance, the original author is Ambrose Bierce, who wrote this story in 1891, the same year as his masterpiece, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. It's a cludgy story, not just for its 19th century American verbosity but because of the awkwardness with which it gets going. In his essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, H P Lovecraft called it 'clumsily developed' but with a 'powerful climax'. I mention this because, rather bizarrely, Mills does exactly the same thing in his loose adaptation: it starts out clumsily but tightens halfway through and ends superbly.

Where Bierce had three young gentlemen in discussion on the porch of a village hotel, Mills has three young preppies chatting in a coffee shop, but the conversation is the same: girls who have deformities and how worthless they are. They're suitably grating with their dismissive comments and colour coordinated polo shirts, but they seem to be reciting rather than reacting. It feels like each of them was shot separately then edited together, and it's all rather fragmentary. It's when one of them notices a stranger overtly listening in that it starts to gel into place. That's Ortiz in a hoodie and, while the camera still continues cutting annoyingly back and forth, we're also given a focus. Mills forgoes the supernatural elements of Bierce's story in favour of a privileged secret society, which may well have been the only viable way to end up with a duel in the 21st century. The stranger recognises their pins and knows their rules and he wants that duel.

What follows diverges from the source story but escalates agreeably nonetheless until an ending that doesn't attempt to match the original but is perhaps still more satisfying to our sensibilities. It really is a 21st century adaptation, right down to its knowingly playing to a different audience. Jason Wiechert, playing the lead, seems hampered by his dialogue at the outset, but reaches a higher level when confronting Ortiz, as the stranger, who matches him. Nick Markovich and R J Serra, as the other preppies, similarly improve from awkward early dialogue to a suitably tense preparation for the duel. This scene is handled really well by everyone involved and from there the tone is manipulated superbly, more like a piece of music than a film: bravura into tranquillo, then crescendo, with a spot on choice of giallo sounding music to accompany the closing credits. Now I'm wondering whether the opening was deliberately dissonante. Maybe, maybe not.

But hey, find out for yourself: Mills has uploaded it to YouTube and Vimeo.

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