Stars: Ashton Sanders, Tishuan Scott, Keston John, Christine Horn, Alfonso Freeman and Bill Oberst Jr
|This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.|
What I found was that the tiredness didn't hit, kept firmly at bay by acting of a tremendous calibre and a script that was engaging and refreshing in a host of ways. It wasn't remotely like a story I'd seen before, for a start. It's a period piece set in 1864 during the American Civil War that cleverly unshackles itself of whatever baggage the audience brought in with the opening scene. We're set up to interpret the black kid walking across the fields to a house in a sort of Schindler's List way. He's apparently in need and an elderly white woman puts him in the barn with some other black folk that she's hiding. Maybe it's just for shelter, as the wind is already howling, or maybe she's a way out for runaway slaves. When the storm arrives in the more deadly form of men with torches on horseback, we automatically feel for the kid, but we soon discover that he's a rat. He's working for a bounty hunter called Burrell who has come not to burn but to retrieve.
Burrell is the first major character we meet who we expect to be a major character. Prolific actor Bill Oberst Jr commands our attention from moment one, even before he further confounds our expectation by being without prejudice. He shoots one of his own men in the shoulder to stop him picking a fight with a shackled slave, not for moral reasons but merely because it's lost property which he needs to return in good condition. It's about value. As he tells his own man, 'The nigger is worth $600. You ain't.' So we have a white bounty hunter who's pragmatic not prejudiced, with a black kid on his payroll who rats out his own. This isn't turning out to be the race film we might have expected, and that's really the key. While this film has a clear grounding in history, which means a clear grounding in racism, it doesn't aim to demonise one colour and beatify the other, either way around. It simply tells its story and lets us build the undertones in our minds.
Neither Burrell nor Marcus are characters to like, but it's impossible not to like what the actors bring to them. In fact Burrell is so obviously deep a character that it's a good thing that he fades away into the background for a while like a bogeyman, because Oberst would have stolen scenes and that wouldn't have helped the picture. As strong and fascinating as Burrell is, this isn't about him, it's about Will and initially that means it's all about Marcus, as his most obvious role model, the only family he has, his immediate figure of authority. Unfortunately Marcus is utterly not the sort of person who needs to be influencing anybody, as is obvious from the fact that he has Will ratting out slaves for pay. Will's story arc kicks in when they reach that dangerous nigger they're tasked with leading back into a trap on an emotional pretext. He's Nate, a completely different character to Marcus, which of course is precisely the point. Will can't help but compare.
It's not difficult to figure out the thrust of that character growth, because Nate is clearly an older, wiser character than anyone Will has ever met, with more experience, more strength and more of an edge. Marcus is more emotional and more rebellious, but less principled, a loudmouth with a streak of yellow. Throw these two adults onto the same road together, that's dangerous because of the war, because of their colour and because of the secrets Will and Marcus carry, and clearly we're set for Nate to become a father figure to the young man who doesn't have one of his own. Perhaps the biggest reason that this film succeeds is that even though we see all this early on, it never becomes predictable. There are points of serious tension throughout as we guess at which way writer/director Chris Eska is going to take his characters in a host of different situations. The ending makes sense but it's only one of many and we don't know which it'll be until we get there.
Ashton Sanders does a solid job as Will, especially given that he was a fifteen year old acting in his first film. It's easy to see that he carries his lines well but, more importantly, he carries his entire body well. Will is a downtrodden young man, stuck doing things that don't feel quite right but with nobody to give him guidance on why. Sanders never smiles, never loses that dropping head that reminds of a whipped dog. The only reason that people aren't raving about his performance is that he's only one of a number of actors who give rave-worthy performances in a powerful ensemble cast. Nate is a gift of a character for Tishuan Scott, who picks it up and runs with it. It wouldn't be difficult to throw a whole slew of superlatives his way for a truly outstanding performance of quiet emphasis, as he ensures that Nate is believably deep but never flawless. However, Keston John plays Marcus just as well; he's just stuck with a more loathsome character to bring to life.
Technically it's very capable, but it's based more in good composition of frame and clever use of the countryside than anything flash or attention grabbing. The editing is most successful because we don't notice it, the soundtrack too. What remains stuck in my mind is the quietness, albeit a dangerous quietness, against which the story slowly but surely makes itself known. I'm no expert on the historical timeframe, but this seems to be well researched and phrased very differently to the usual civil war story. During the Q&A at the Phoenix Film Festival, Tishuan Scott talked about the reading he'd done as research and how it had deeply troubled him. It's far from a pretty time in this nation's past, but perhaps we don't realise how dark the reality was. Setting this coming of age story against that background, rather than focus on the brutality, actually brings it home all the more because we're looking at the thoughts and reactions more than actions themselves.
Eska deserves high praise for what he did here. He's hardly a prolific filmmaker, writing five films over ten years and directing three of them, but if his earlier work is anything like this, he made his time count. I'm very interested in his previous feature, August Evening, and a long short he shot in Japan in 2003 called Doki-Doki. This wouldn't have been the success it was if he didn't have a trio of outstanding lead actors, so the casting deserves credit too. Scott is the standout, but John and young Sanders do excellent work as well. Most of the rest of the cast are civil war reenactors who worked for barbecue and beer, but they do exactly what they're tasked with doing. No film won more than one award at this year's Phoenix Film Festival except this one, which won three: Best Ensemble, Best Director and the Audience Award. It wasn't as enjoyable as Down and Dangerous, as much fun as Waking or as delicious as Favor, but it was the best film I saw all festival.