Sunday 19 August 2012

Scalene (2011)

Director: Zack Parker
Stars: Margo Martindale, Adam Scarimbolo and Hanna Hall

Rashomon, Memento and The Usual Suspects didn't call themselves perceptual thrillers but it feels like a fair description. The more recent Scalene, which coined the term to describe itself, takes a few different approaches from films like those and combines them into something that's almost like a whodunit, but only from the perspective of the viewer. It's a challenge: Zack Parker, who wrote, produced and directed, is going to play with our heads and our mission, if we choose to accept it, is to figure out where he's going to take us before we find ourselves there. Scalene is a single story, but told from three different perspectives; what's more, one unfolds backwards and one forwards, with the third being a deliberate jumble that links varied events together as surreal segues. It isn't possible to watch this film without continual reevaluation. If we stood up in court to explain the facts in this story, our testimony would depend on how far we got.

While this is ruthless and unashamed manipulation of the audience, we do at least know we're being manipulated, as the film opens with the aftermath then proceeds backwards to explain what it's the aftermath of. Janice Trimble wants her son back and it's Paige Alexander who took him away, so she shows up at her house with a gun. This scene is the most awkward in the film because neither participant has a clue either how to threaten or be threatened and it gets very farcical and overblown very quickly. Yet it's a fair microcosm of the film to come, which doesn't feel awkward at all. As we watch the weapons change, gun to towel rail to umbrella, we wonder what we're watching and we ask questions about what we see. This is far from your run of the mill thriller. Sure, Hanna Hall, who plays Paige, is pretty close to the stereotype of a victim of a home invasion, but Margo Martindale is as far from the usual invader as they come.

Martindale is one of those character actors who most people will recognise, probably from a host of different films and TV shows, but few will be able to name. She looks like an everyday person, one reason why she's so good at playing everyday people on screen, and it's wonderful to see her in a role of such substance. She and Hall are the leads, with Adam Scarambolo supporting them as Jakob Trimble. In lesser hands, Jakob would be the focal point: a handicapped adult, almost thirty but damaged mentally and unable to speak. A Hollywood writer would use the part to aim at an Oscar, but Parker makes him a living, breathing MacGuffin instead. He's what the other characters care about most but that's about it. The real story is in the other characters, in their actions and motivations, and, given the way in which those things are explored, in the depth of the performances that bring them to life. Both Martindale and Hall are superlative.

Because of the nature of this picture, it's impossible to give a fair synopsis. With most films, just outlining the first ten minutes is enough; sometimes it's less, sometimes much more, but there's almost always a point that must be reached to set up the plot but which can't be passed without providing spoilers. Here that's utterly not the case. Parker may never lie to us about who these characters are but he doesn't tell us the whole truth either, withholding important information to dish out a bit at a time to move the plot forward. This means that there are very few facts to provide as bedrock, everything else being perspective that changes continually. All I can really say is that Janice is a single mother, Jakob is her handicapped son and Paige his caregiver. After a few years, he's sentenced to three to five years of treatment in an institution for raping Paige. But those are just the facts, ma'am. There's a great deal more to proceedings than that.

I'd very much recommend that you pick up a copy of the film, which was released by Breaking Glass Pictures last month on DVD and BluRay, among other more modern formats, to find out just how much more. It's an understatement to suggest that there are depths here to explore. The revelations, and our subsequent reevaluations of them, keep on coming until we end up where we began, but with background enough to understand the context. Yet, by the time we get there, we're so in tune with Parker's conjecture that there is no truth, merely our perception of it, and so aware of just how often our perception has changed as the story unfolded, that I for one don't want to assume that it's a neatly tied up bundle and we're done. The ending is also a number of beginnings and there are many, many ramifications to consider. More than any other recent movie I can think of, this would be fascinating to sit down and discuss with people.
One key to the 'perceptual thriller' tag is that there are hints everywhere, most of which are not revealed as truths, which is frustrating but appropriate. This isn't your average Hollywood movie where everything we see is guaranteed to be put to use at a later point. Some of these hints may well hide truths, while others are less important in themselves than in how they're perceived by other characters, who then act upon those perceptions and drive the plot forward. Certainly the plot is shaped as much by perceptions as by facts, just as Memento was, or going further back, just as The Big Sleep was. Reality is what we make it, after all. The other key is that it isn't just about what the characters perceive but what we perceive. This is a film that makes us think, not just about the internal logic of the piece but about perception itself and how we make judgement calls in our own lives without context. Scalene is one of those films that could change its viewers.

This is very much Zack Parker's film, with a mention for long term collaborator Brandon Owens who co-wrote it with him. He directed it, he produced it and he edited it. He is utterly in control over what we see, especially important here as everything is about perception. Yet it had to be brought to life by the actors he hired, and as the scene that bookends the film testifies, that's not an easy task. I'm still not convinced by this scene, which I feel is still overplayed, even after factoring in the unfamiliarity the characters would have in such a situation. I'm sure, however, that I don't have that problem with anything in between and I'm thankful that Parker, who is still an independent filmmaker, landed his two leading ladies for this, only his third feature. They're very different, but they do have a couple of things in common: neither are particularly known for their leading roles in features and both of them deserve to be.

Martindale is a character actress, though her recent Emmy for playing the matriarch of a crime family in Justified may well deservedly propel her into more substantial roles. I probably first saw her in The Rocketeer, but she's played in everything from Days of Thunder to Hannah Montana: The Movie via Million Dollar Baby. On TV, her latest of many regular slots is in A Gifted Man. 'I think all actors should be character actors,' she says, and I couldn't agree more. She dominates for at least the first half of Scalene, Janice being our initial focus of attention and the grounding to the film. She stays our focus for quite a while, even as we shift over to scenes with Paige and Jakob, but gradually she lets Hanna Hall take the spotlight in the third act. Just as Hall appears to phone it in for a while but is really highlighting a lack of purpose, I wonder how much a second viewing will add to Martindale's brief contributions later on in the film.

Still under thirty, Hall had appeared in both Forrest Gump and The Virgin Suicides before turning sixteen. However these and many of her subsequent roles, including one as Michael Myers's sister and victim in Rob Zombie's Halloween, were short. Scalene shows what she can do with a lot more screen time, especially given that she has to follow Martindale's performance. While initially appearing to be a throwaway character, rarely visible, she grows magnificently during the second half of the film. The more involved she gets, the more thoughtful she becomes, the more depth she acquires and the more watchable she is. As the film runs on, she really takes over, dominating the film with powerful performances in her big scenes, which are handled very well indeed. Of course, by the end Martindale is back, but they're on much more even terms as characters, underlining just how much this film has relied on both of them.

Backing them up, Adam Scarimbolo does a good job in what is the only non-speaking role in the film. He's background in a lot of shots but he's always doing something, even if it's just some sort of twitch. When he gets more to do, he adds some character into proceedings even though we're not really sure how much character he really has. Jim Dougherty is worthy of mention too, though I'm still not sure how much actual substance his character provides. Everything here is solid, except for that framing scene and the picture quality of the screener I got from Breaking Glass. It was so bad that it looked like I was watching something with the resolution of a VCD, plagued with scary amounts of pixellation. After following up with other reviewers, I can happily report that this does not appear to be a problem with the film itself, just the screener. What you see when you go out and buy your copy should look fine. I'll know how fine when I buy mine.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

too wordy. Just write straight to
the point.