Monday 22 April 2013

Favor (2013)

Director: Paul Osborne
Stars: Blayne Weaver and Patrick Day
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.
My suspicious nature creeps out whenever I discover a film that is clearly constructed out of one simple idea and flares up further when that idea is a well known and overused meme. That's the case here, as writer/director Paul Osborne based Favor on the tired aphorism that, 'A friend helps you move. A good friend helps you move a body.' In fact that's the precise tagline on the poster and it's also the first scene in the film, as Kip Desmond drops in on Marvin Croat at half past two in the morning because, hey, Marvin 'could always be counted on' and Kip has accidentally bumped off a bit on the side in a motel room. The clich├ęs come thick and fast, right down to, 'It happened so fast.' I'd have had rather low expectations, if it didn't seem so knowing. As it turns out, Favor ratchets up the old and tired into something new and deliciously twisted. What's more, it has not one but two OMGWTF moments that are truly joyous. The first one rooked me between the eyes.

But they come later and I can't talk about them because they're firmly into spoiler territory. First we need to pay attention to what Kip dumps on Marvin because this is a deceptively simple tale. There's always a lot more going on than we might initially expect and we're kept guessing as to who's doing what to whom. Certainly it starts out simple. Kip and Marvin were ninjas together as kids, best friends forever. Now, Kip is panicked and looking very guilty indeed, relatively easy for him as he has a politician's grin and actor Blayne Weaver looks rather like Christian Slater playing Tony Bliar. Kip has been married to Claire for seven years but he's been routinely cheating on her with Abby, a waitress at the diner he eats at. Tonight she wanted more than he was willing to give and she got up in his face and he pushed her and she hit her head on the corner of a cabinet and now she's dead. He has to clean up the mess and all he could think of was his old friend Marv.

He's right because Marv does take care of business. He checks the details first to make sure of an approach. Nobody knows about Kip and Abby. They used different motels every time, she paid on her credit card and he refunded her in cash. She's not married; she lives alone. He always picked her up at the end of her street so her neighbours wouldn't know. It should be a clean clean up. So Marv sends Kip home to his wife and heads off to get rid of the dead body in room number five. Of course, if it all works out that well, we wouldn't have a movie so we know something's going to go wrong and it's here that Osborne elevates his film firmly above the routine. Next morning, as Kip leaves for work, his little problem hopefully taken care of, he finds Marv outside his house. Asking questions. He's been up all night thinking through the details. Did Abby have any pets? When he finds out she has a cat, how can he leave it to die in her house? He can't leave it alone.
Now, this is a really difficult film to review because Osborne lets his script unfold like he's peeling an onion. Every five or ten minutes, he removes another layer and we learn something important and new that makes us reevaluate what we've seen thus far. It's not as mathematically precise as something like Memento but the principle is exactly the same; to a large degree, I can't talk about a lot of what I'd normally talk about in a review without spoiling something that I'd regret spoiling because you deserve to experience these reveals the same way I did, completely blind. So what can I talk about safely? I guess I can highlight that the story progresses in a number of different ways, but perhaps focuses most strongly on how this favour affects the relationship between Kip and Marv. Even there it's versatile, as we see that from a dramatic standpoint, a darkly comedic one and within the framework of a thriller. It's a tangled web indeed.

The acting is solid and revolves almost entirely around the two leading men. I haven't seen either of these actors before but Osborne knows them well and wrote the script specifically for them. Kip is played by Blayne Weaver, who's not only experienced as an actor but as a writer and director as well, often serving all three roles in the same picture. These films, like 6 Month Rule, Weather Girl and Outside Sales all seem to focus on breaking relationships, with dramatic and comedic impact, so he's clearly perfect for this one. Kip turns out to be in advertising rather than politics, but same diff. He looks the part to begin with but he fleshes out the character superbly. Like any salesman, we can never be sure how much of what he's telling us is the truth, if any, and that makes it a fun task to try to figure him out. As he's forced by circumstance to effectively sell concepts to his wife, even she tells him, 'You're not really a conscience kind of guy, Kip.'

By comparison, Marv appears to be a genuinely caring soul, at least for a while. He certainly takes care of Kip's problem for him, but over time we start to wonder whether he's really the good friend the aphorism would tell us he is. A key exchange of dialogue early on has Kip promise him, 'Man, I owe you big.' Marv's answer is simply, 'Yeah, you do.' It's a throwaway exchange but it sums up so much of where we go, if only you read it in the number of different ways it deserves. I hope it isn't a spoiler to suggest that for part of the film he becomes a bizarre take on What About Bob?, but in a strange way, as if he's Richard Dreyfuss playing Bill Murray's character. Perhaps his name really isn't accidental, as Dreyfuss played Dr Marvin in that film. Is this Osborne's What About Marv? I'd suggest that as great as Weaver is here, Day may be even better, but that's a tough call to make and one that I can't back up without those pesky spoilers creeping back in.
Certainly one of our challenges as those onion layers become gradually revealed is to figure out the real motivations of the leads. It's easy to see it all as an inevitable set of escalations from a fundamentally life changing act that clearly sets the rest of the story into motion like a house of cards, but that does a disservice to Osborne and the depth he gave these characters. This isn't merely dark situation comedy, there's something behind everything, even early on, and Weaver and Day play up their ambiguity. It's not difficult to read it all as a daisy chain of reactions, but it isn't that simple either, because we have to factor in why those reactions happen. Did this or that happen because of remorse or guilt or something like PTSD? How heartless is Kip, the ruthless salesman, and how selfless is Marv, the good friend, especially when we realise, in Kip's words, that, 'We don't exactly travel in the same circles any more.'

As much as this is all about Kip and Marv, and the MacGuffin that is Abby's corpse, there are other characters in this film too. As outside factors, they threaten the ability of the leads to keep secrets secret. Kip can try his best to sell his version of the truth to his wife, Claire, who is a volatile factor throughout, but it's tougher to do that to his boss. Tad Harrison runs the company he works at and he doesn't take no for an answer, especially as he's played by Jeffrey Combs. He doesn't get a lot of screen time but he makes it count and Osborne gifts him a neat horror movie entrance. There's Pinback, a refreshingly bright cop who's exquisitely played by Alison Martin, and Kimber, another potential squeeze for Kip at work, now that Abby is gone. Each of them could be seen as a breeze lightly but consistently wafting towards that house of cards, ready to unwittingly topple the whole thing down in one fell swoop.

And so on it goes, with Kip increasingly besieged by the dark reality of his deed and the inevitable ramifications that must surely follow, struggling to keep a lid on the whole thing while seemingly everyone around him, including his good friend Marv, seem likely to blow that lid right off. Given that I've had to talk around so much of this already, you can be sure I can't talk about that pair of OMGWTF moments except to emphasise how powerful they are. It's a rare thing for a filmmaker to stun me with a moment that comes utterly out of left field but remains nonetheless completely appropriate, but Osborne did that here. When he tried something similar later on, I was ready for him but a good deal of the audience at the Phoenix Film Festival weren't. Reactions like those are like a winning lottery ticket for a filmmaker and Osborne must have left that theatre feeling very good indeed. Even though I had nothing to do with this movie, I did too.

No comments: