Sunday 20 May 2012

Into the Wake (2012)

Director: John Mossman
Stars: Tim Miller, John Gray and Kristin Anderson
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
Fortunately I'd scheduled a break on Saturday afternoon for lunch with friends. The Phoenix Film Festival had gone very right for me on Friday evening but Saturday wasn't holding up very well and that break turned out to be the turning point. The Woman in the Fifth was an interesting but frustrating substitute for The Monk. Monster Brawl was an endurance test that warranted a great deal of recovery time. Queens of Country, which I'd picked to fill the slot before Michael Biehn's The Victim, was sold out, thus prompting a switch to Into the Wake, about which I knew nothing at all. Things were not looking good. Yet this film, made by people I hadn't heard of and starring people I hadn't heard of, turned out to be exactly the turnaround I needed. It's a tough story of revenge, closure and trust which benefits from the gorgeous vistas of Sauk County, Wisconsin. It's set up well, it unfolds capably and it builds to a powerful finalé. It's what film festivals are for.

Our lead character is Ken, who has found himself a comfortable spot in life that he doesn't want to change. He's spent twenty years as a contract driver for the same Chicago company, though they want to hire him on as management. He's good at his job and he's good, period, as we find when he breaks up an uneven fight, three kids against one. He also enjoys mild bondage with tattooed chicks so he certainly can't be all bad. They're a cute, though unusual couple, Ken and Simone. He's a middle aged white guy with a beard that's turning grey. She's a younger black girl with a passion for life. When not in bed, they lie on their backs identifying cloud pictures or sit on park benches playing Super Spy, imagining the secret identities of passers by. He piggy backs her into a tattoo studio so the staff can give her a psychic reading for her birthday. This could easily be a romantic comedy or a subtle drama built around Ken's inevitable change.

And change he does. He looks a good deal younger when Simone shaves off his beard. He takes the management position. 'I don't want to be the same guy forever,' he explains. Unfortunately, this isn't good timing. As if he's the punchline to some cosmic joke, it's here that he gets an odd voicemail that underlines that he can't avoid being the same guy forever. 'Randy is seriously ill,' it tells him, 'and Kyle needs to come home.' It isn't a wrong number, as Ken reacts by vanishing and getting drunk for three days straight. When he finally rings the number back, our real story begins. He gets on his bike and drives back into a life he thought he'd left behind, one in which he was known as Kyle. He takes the gun with him that one of those bullies had dropped after he broke up their fun. We only have hints to go on: 'they're going to find it', 'only he knows where it is', 'he needs to move it'... All we really know is that this isn't going to end well.
I knew absolutely nobody in the cast, including Tim Miller, who carries the lead role of Ken/Kyle ably. Most are local Wisconsin actors known more for stage work than anything they've done on film before. Their average filmographies barely stretch beyond this picture, but that works to its advantage, especially when the story shifts us deliberately from known to unknown, from city to country, from busy downtown Chicago to the lower Wisconsin river. It means that we're able to follow Kyle in more ways than the physical journey itself: he's been gone twenty years, and while he understands the clan war that he's being dragged back into, he doesn't recognise many more faces than we do. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Kyle is a McMillan and it's Campbells who chase him through this lovely countryside. Using MacDonald must have been either too overt a reference or seen as risking a lawsuit from the guardians of the golden arch.

As you can imagine, there's bad history here, each side having committed atrocities against the other: unforgiveable ones, naturally. We experience it with Kyle, without any real understanding of why it began, merely the knowledge that it passed critical mass long ago and thus can't be stopped. The best that can be done is apparently to leave it behind, move to Chicago and take on a fresh name. Yet, as Kyle found, even after twenty years that isn't enough. Described as an 'existential action thriller', it meets that description well. There are scenes of action, tension, toughness, the things you might expect from a thriller; but there's far more depth than could be fairly expected, especially in a feature that apparently cost a mere $61,000. The script, which Miller co-wrote with director John Mossman, who works by day as a film professor at Chicago's Columbia College, really takes a shot at dissecting the cycle of revenge.

Had it not been for that depth, it would be easy to cite comparisons: Deliverance being obvious, Rituals a little less so but with a little more accuracy. The depth makes it tougher, because we can't help but realise that this isn't about setpieces, as decent as they are. Campbells chase Kyle into the Wisconsin river, shot from so far above that it highlights how small these players are on the stage that surrounds them. With Kyle safely chained up in a barn, they try for information by asking, reasoning, beating. One crazy chick tries seducing, cutting off and eating his tattooed tear, then letting him go. Needless to say, he doesn't get far. But this is just cinema. Pervading these scenes is the pointlessness of it all. The filmmakers throw us into this clan war alongside Kyle and we want to be there as little as he does. It isn't cool or pretty. There are no good guys and bad guys. It's exhausting and hateful and pointless.
The big picture is never unveiled. We have no idea what sparked this generations long cycle of revenge. Nobody takes it back to a Glencoe massacre to give it perspective. We're at the point where the current generation either don't know why it all started or they don't care. Miller and Mossman do give us a little picture to focus on, so that we can understand how things built to this point. We realise that everything we see has unfolded inexorably from one moment, not the first one but the only one that matters now, the MacGuffin of the piece. Around it we're given different characters, written well enough to provide a number of different attitudes even though few get much screen time. Balancing them all together, we realise that nobody knows how to make it end and that there are always new moments to build from. We wonder whether the endings are really endings or just new beginnings, but without any need for a sequel.

For such an impactful film, Into the Wake feels deceptively loose. We're given plenty of time to get to know Ken before we discover that he's really Kyle. None of what happens in Chicago feels important but some of it is very much so, even down to details that crop back up later. Mostly though it's to tie us, the viewers, to the lead character, to feel like we understand him, like him and identify with him. At the point where that seems to be true, everything changes and we're thrown into those changes as unfairly as Ken is. It isn't about whether we might like Kyle too, it's about our reactions. There's subversive intent here. If we lash out at the unfairness, we'll find our reaction reflected in the reactions of characters that we have yet to meet, something that provides a more acute insight into the unending cycle of hate that the story revolves around than we might have found otherwise. It's clever writing and it deserves a good deal of praise.

There's much to praise, even if we don't factor in that minuscule budget. To be fair, while we can marvel at how much is achieved with so little money, it doesn't feel low budget so shouldn't be restricted as such. It's merely an independent film, if that hasn't lost its meaning nowadays. The writing is the foundation upon which the rest is built, and if nothing else matches that standard it's only because it's such a tough target. The acting is consistently capable, Miller the standout both because he's really good and because he's the only character with screen time enough to really shine. Technically it does exactly what it should, providing field experience to University of Wisconsin students in the process. The locations are appropriate, Sauk County gifting a timeless aura to this timeless conflict and Chicago contrasting neatly. I don't want to suggest that it's perfect but it's a thoroughly refreshing take on an age old theme and it deserves to be seen.

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