Wednesday 1 August 2012

The Ruffians (2009)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Gordon Clark, Dani Danger and Dean Veglia

Through no deliberate design, my first review in July was of a Travis Mills short film. Now we're in August, it felt like a good idea to kick off the month by reviewing another one. There are plenty to catch up on, after all, and he remains as prolific as ever. The way he's going, I could make my first review of every month a Travis Mills short film and I'd still never catch up. This one predates Running Wild Pictures, being a GuerillaStar Production from 2009, his earliest directorial credit at IMDb, and it's a particularly interesting piece. It's long for a short, running nineteen minutes. It's accessible but experimental, with an overlay of interference that would make us wonder if there was a problem if only Jim wasn't obviously hearing it too. He's our lead character and he takes us on a primal journey that we can read as a literal one, a metaphorical one or a psychological one. I'm not sure which was intended, but it could well have been all of them.

Jim works in a law office and he's apparently good at his job, but his work has been slipping for a while. His boss tells him he's slowing down when he should be speeding up, but he doesn't hear too much of it because of the static that seems to sit between him and the world. The camera is a swooping thing too, keeping him perpetually off balance. The sound follows him wherever he goes, only disappearing inside the tunnel opposite his office, to which he naturally feels drawn. On the literal level, I've heard of remote places where people who hear wireless signals can go to escape them. On the metaphorical level, it's an quick and easy respite from a world full of suits, deadlines and paperwork. On the psychological level, maybe Jim is just going dramatically crazy. Whichever viewpoint we're taking, Gordon Clark is on target as Jim, both tormented by the world he can't live in any more and engaged by the strange new one he finds within the tunnel.

Given that Kikei, the first character he meets, is played by the legendary Dani Danger, Arizona locals will quickly realise how strange it might be. For those unfamiliar with the lovely Miss Dani, she's a singular vision and a wake up call to the eyes on a daily basis. Here, she's barefoot, everything including her forward hanging dreads caked in clay and the subdermal cross in her cleavage even more apparent than usual. I guess we can understand why Jim runs, a kneejerk reaction, but we can also understand why he comes back later. I mean, think about it. This guy clearly wants out of the real world, whichever level we believe he's doing it on. If the possibility of escape involved shacking up with Dani Danger and her Ruffians in a primitive, almost silent, underground world of food, fire and freedom, wouldn't you jump at it? Your decision should be made even before she strips naked in front of you. By that point, who would want reality?

Quite what Mills was aiming at here, I'm not entirely sure. His screenplay, based on a story he co-wrote with Drew Koshar, is long on tone and short on detail, with what little dialogue there is often hidden behind walls of sonic pollution. It's much more like an impressionistic painting than a draughtsman's drawing, but there is an underlying structure to what happens to Jim. Maybe it's more like a vision quest, each of us tasked with seeking out a hidden truth about ourselves from within the film. This is enhanced by Brandon Reader's ritualistic tribal score and Dave Surber's effectively loose camerawork, which mirrors how out of sync Jim is with the world. I'm leaning towards a psychological take, a minimalistic but outré riff on the end of Brazil, but I'm enticed by the metaphorical one too. The Ruffians are all about rejection of norms and Jim has many norms to reject, from credit cards to American football. Maybe it's both. Now, where's this tunnel?

The Ruffians can be viewed for free at Vimeo.

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