Stars: Michael Hanelin, Scott Scheall and Gus Edwards
January's Travis Mills review was of the film I currently regard as his best, The Memory Ride (my favourite is probably still his debut feature, The Big Something, for its irrepressible irreverence). February's was of what may be the one I regard as his least, The French Spy, even though Travis liked that review best of all my reviews of his work. This month's choice, Off Track, sits inevitably in between them but in an enlightening way. Thinking about why highlights why some of his films work so well and why some of them don't, thoughts that Mills quite obviously experimented with during 2012. As with most of his films, it appears to be a very simple tale; as with most of his best, it doesn't turn out to be quite so simple after all. His best work is ambiguous and deep but stops short of being cryptic, perhaps because of his fondness for film noir. A rule of thumb is that the simpler the film, the more likely it is to fail, even if it's technically exquisite.
This one appears to be very simple indeed. The rare image sitting behind the title suggests that it's a horse racing film but for a horse racing film, we sure see a lot of Michael Hanelin's face and very little of either horses or horse racing. Of course that's because it's really all about him, the unnamed character who rarely leaves the screen and who narrates the entire picture without a single word of dialogue to distract us. He goes to the track every Friday afternoon and puts on what he calls his 'ultimate performance': he buys a program, an overpriced beer and sometimes looks at the track. He loses every week, a sucker just like everyone else there. He looks the part, showing everyone that he cares, even though he doesn't. The only difference is that he doesn't actually bet. Why? 'It kept me in balance' he says, allowing him to cope with the stress of work and his wife and two kids. He's so generic that it should have been two and a half.
And then, as he leaves one week, he finds a note tucked under his windscreen wipers, one that provides the name of a horse and how to bet on it to win. Here's where the movie changes, not least because it's when the highly appropriate score kicks in. It's been as absent as the dialogue thus far, but after the note is read, it rumbles quietly into place, the volume increasing steadily until we reach the point of the story, then it stops entirely, to return only for the end credits. Of course, the horse in the note is running the next week and it places as suggested. Had he taken its advice, he'd have won. Every week from then on, there's another note, except the week when he camps out in the parking lot to see who's leaving them, and they're always right. The finalé is not going to surprise you too much, but it's well handled, and it leaves us wondering about which of the three ways we can read the entire film is the right one.
This is what Mills does best. When he paints an abstract, such as The French Spy, it tends to fail, just like when he paints something obvious, such as Shine Like Gold. It's his impressionistic films that ring true, like The Ruffians or The Memory Ride, because we can read them in a number of ways, examining layers until we find a hidden truth, even if that truth turns out to be a reflection of ourselves rather than anything he deliberately placed there. Perhaps Off Track could be called impressionism lite, as the architect of this character's destiny is shared by each way the film can be read; we merely ask whether he does so literally or psychologically. Hanelin is perfect for this sort of Everyman role: he looks so unremarkable that he could easily fade into the background, but his malleable face and subtle acting talent allow him to ably personify the ambiguity in Mills's impressionistic films. No wonder he's now a Running Wild regular. We'll surely see more of him.