Stars: Michael Hanelin, Jonathan Medina, Holly Nordquist, Michelle Palermo, Eric Almassy, Stacie Stocker, Kyle Gerkin, Amy Searcy, Colleen Hartnett, Shellie Ulrich, James Leatherman, Kristi Lawrence, Gus Edwards, Keylor Leigh and John Miller
Bizarrely, even though they don't talk to each other, Walt and Mel are each other's closest friends, which realisation explains much. 'I don't have any friends,' Walt tells his therapist. Well, except an 'old baseball acquaintance'. They communicate through baseballs, which they leave at each other's houses with dates and places written on them, and they connect through baseball, silently playing out their duel. While I'm English and thus don't understand baseball in the slightest, their pain is universal. It's troubling to watch people clearly driven by the one thing they're trying desperately to stop being part of their lives. Medina has the edge because Mel is notably less in control. He's completely driven by an all-consuming passion that he's failing to quench; he suffers when not playing and the game just won't let him be. Walt is able to suppress it better but it's still there. It's notable how close this pair are without knowing a thing about each other; their first real interaction is particularly telling for a number of reasons.
The fifteenth name in the credits belongs to Holly Nordquist, who plays Walt's daughter, Chloe, and does a respectable job of doing so in what is the most substantial role behind the leads. She's not completely new to Running Wild, having appeared in a 52 Films in 52 Weeks short, James Joyce's After the Race, and she establishes herself well here, sparring capably with Michael Hanelin, but she's not one of the quickly recognisable faces that populate the rest of the supporting cast. For instance, Walt's ex is Stacie Stocker and his therapist is Amy Searcy. The romantic connection Walt almost finds is with Colleen Hartnett and, of course, they don't quite connect as the moment Hanelin and Hartnett find a screen relationship that might actually work, the apocalypse will surely be upon us. The girlfriend Mel loses is Shellie Ulrich and, after a date with Kristi Lawrence, he finds Michelle Palermo. He works for Eric Almassy and he encounters a drunken Kyle Gerkin in a bar. Elsewhere, we find John Miller, James Leatherman and Michael Coleman.
I've both been looking forward and not looking forward to Duel in the Mound. I'm a fan of many of these actors and relish the opportunity to see them in a feature, but I'm not a fan either of baseball or movies that revolve around sports, something that's shaping a future Apocalypse Later book. I have a great deal of background with Running Wild Films, of course, as I've spent two years opening up each month with a review of one of their shorts; I'm now working through their 52 Films in 52 Weeks in 52 weeks of my own. I've reviewed each of their previous features and have been eagerly waiting the great one which I know will come from them but has been stubbornly refusing to show up thus far. I've long preferred their zero budget debut, The Big Something, to the more ambitious features that followed it, The Detective's Lover and The Men Who Robbed the Bank. I think I prefer it to this too, for its quirky humour and its astounding soundtrack, but there's no disputing that this is the best of the four, in front of and behind the camera.
The biggest flaw early on is probably rooted in the editing, as each scene feels crafted more like a short film than part of a feature. They're all complete vignettes in themselves, pieced together with care, and they might benefit from being looser and flowing less deliberately. However, they all benefit from strong cinematography and sense of place, underpinned by a good score and they still draw us in. Also notable in the early scenes is the fact that almost everything is negative, perhaps inevitably given how the story has to grow with depressed characters coming out of bad situations and struggling to find a way to turn them into good ones. It's the montage scene of Walt and Mel on the pitch that temporarily lifts us up out of their depression as much as them and tells us that there is indeed some positive in the picture. It may sound odd from me, but perhaps there should have been another of these early on to temper how down these two have become. It takes a while for the negative to bleed into positive and characters to engage.
Gradually, Hanelin gives up the floor to Medina, who is initially less interesting. For a while, he's the other guy in the duel and little more, his background less explored and his motivations less understood. There's worthy material in the school scenes but the effort he's making is all internal, not as quantifiable as what Walt is doing. Yet Medina, always so fantastic at being moody, brings real danger to the picture when his personal struggle starts to really falter. In a way, he gets a get out of jail free card too, but, unlike Walt's, it wasn't there all along waiting to be found and it isn't as easy for him to accept. Walt's story is over and done with by the time the end credits roll, but Mel's isn't. He might have a way out but he still has to take it and it's still not going to be an easy task for him. I should add that this aids the film to no small degree because it ends on a high note. We leave not only with Medina's thunderstorm of a performance but with the sun finally starting to shine through between the clouds. He absolutely rocks the end of this picture.
Of course, while it belongs to Medina, a lot of people rocked the end of this picture, not least because I'm utterly unaffacted by the national sport of the United States yet thoroughly enjoyed this part of the movie which revolves around it. Sure, the rendition of the national anthem backed by stock footage is overdoing the sentiment to no small degree, but all four characters playing the film out are on fire at this point and Travis Mills, who wrote and directed Duel on the Mound, gifts them with really good material to work with. The trio of short baseball films which Mills adapted from stories by Ring Lardner for 52 Films in 52 Weeks are some of my favourites in that project, not least because they're less about baseball and more about passion. This is no different, baseball being something of a MacGuffin because the film is really all about people struggling with their passion and how to let it co-exist amidst the rest of their lives. At a mere 68 minutes, this could have been a lot more, but it bodes well for Durant's Never Closes, coming soon.
Duel at the Mound has two nights left on the big screen at Pollack Tempe Cinemas this Friday and Saturday (7th and 8th November, 2014) at 9.30pm.