Monday 2 September 2013

The Men Who Robbed the Bank (2013)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Michael Hanelin, Frank Gonzalez, Jonathan Medina, Rob Edwards and James Leatherman

A new month means a new Travis Mills review and, purely by chance, his new feature premiered this weekend at Tempe Pollack Cinemas. It's The Men Who Robbed the Bank and it's as different from his previous two features as it is from any of his other films I've seen thus far. The Big Something was a quirky comedy while The Detective's Lover was a darker film noir, but this is a straight drama, albeit one that doesn't follow paths commonly trod. It's a crime film without a crime, for a start, as we see the buildup and aftermath but never the bank robbery itself. Unlike Reservoir Dogs though, it isn't a busy film, with the five robbers of the title mostly waiting around for the story to show up. With most of that story unfolding in a single room, it often feels reminiscent of play-based films shot in the late twenties when Hollywood converted to sound but microphones weren't mobile. That's underlined by the surprising absence of a score, something rarely done since 1931.

In fact, for most of this film, it was the absence of things that was more notable than the presence of them. Given that this is a Travis Mills picture, that prompts the usual task of figuring out how much he did what he did in order to keep his budget as close to non-existent as possible and how much was to experiment with the medium of film. Usually it's a combination of both, but I found that I liked this one a little more than his more overtly experimental work, like The French Spy or The Blind Man.Yet it's certainly not going to be for everyone. Anyone used to the explosions, rapid fire editing and abundant CGI of Hollywood blockbusters is pretty likely to take a nap during this film and not feel like they were missing anything. It isn't just the general lack of action, it's the lack of conversation too, a particularly ambitious approach for a film driven by its character interaction. This may well end up playing better to people who go to theatres to see plays rather than movie theatres to see films.

Mills makes this surprising approach apparent from the outset, with an opening scene in which almost nothing happens. I couldn't help but remember discussions about the first lines of novels, how they're often designed to grab the reader's attention, impart key information and set the stage for the story to come. In contrast, this picture opens with none of the above. We are shown each of the five men who robbed the bank, but not with anything to help us understand who they are and why they're there, not yet at least. Everything is mundane. Michael looks in the mirror and flushes the toilet. Frank plays with his phone. 'Sorry, I forgot,' he says and switches it off. Johnny silently plays solitaire. Bobby shows up late and suggests that there might be a storm coming. They're all calm except antsy James, who is in the kitchen looking for a can opener. What they talk about is less conversation and more what might happen in the absence of one: gap fillers like coffee, card games and that imminent rain.
We learn three things. These five men are the title characters meeting up after their robbery has been completed. They're waiting for the boss to show up and split the take with them. And fans of local film will realise that all five of them are named for the actors who play them. Michael is Michael Hanelin, a regular face in Running Wild shorts. He's been the focus of many, such as Off Track and The Memory Ride, but this may be the best opportunity Mills has given him to grow his character himself, instead of prompting the audience to fill in the gaps. Bobby is the omnipresent Rob Edwards, who has been with Mills longer and was so memorable in the previous two Running Wild features. He's solid here too but this character doesn't provide him with as much opportunity to shine. Johnny is Jonathan Medina, a quiet brooding man here, utterly unlike his flamboyant role in Itty Bitty Bang Bang or quieter roles in Friday Nights Alone or Lee Quarrie's Second Chance. He gets surprisingly little to do for the most part.

That leaves James Leatherman and Frank Gonzalez as James and Frank, two actors I don't believe I've seen before, even though Leatherman is a prolific local talent. I wonder why his films haven't crossed my path before, though I'm sure the new horror anthology Voices from the Grave won't elude me for long, given that it also features Hanelin and Medina, along with the voice of David Hayes. Leatherman certainly gets most of the opportunities here as the loudest, most obvious and most neurotic of the five main characters, continually alienating himself amongst the group until it's four to one against him. He does a good job of being believably obnoxious but without us wanting to kill him. Gonzalez also makes himself noticed but in quieter ways. He's the new guy of the bunch, still uncomfortable in such company and obviously greener in every way, right down to making coffee. With the film such a character based piece, all five of these performances had to be solid to ground it and they are.

Most of the picture unfolds in this waiting period, after the robbery but before the boss shows up with the loot. It doesn't stay as quiet as it begins, as tensions rise throughout between the perpetrators of the crime, though it never really becomes the lively movie we might expect from the subject matter. Instead, to spice it up, Mills takes us backwards. There's a preparatory scene with the boss that would bookend the later ones in a chronological telling, but mostly there's a set of flashbacks to flesh out the characters of the various crooks and provide us with their respective motivations. What's surprising is that Mills keeps us on our toes by refusing to play out any of these story arcs in the usual way. Maybe one of his goals here was to continually flout convention all the way to the end credits and see what he could get away with. That's almost appropriate for a crime story, after all, and I for one didn't feel like Mills should be lynched for his unconventional approach. Others may see things differently.
What this means is that I can't talk too much more about the characters without venturing into spoiler territory, so I'll highlight some of the other things that stood out to me. Technically, it's solid without ever being flash, in keeping with the focus on what isn't there rather than what is. While the lighting could be better, what aren't here are technical issues. Mills has a gazillion pictures behind him now and he has sound maestro James Alire to constantly rely on (this is appropriately a co-production with 5J Media, Alire's production company), but it would be remiss of me to forget that The Big Something and The Detective's Lover both had minor sound and visual issues, which highlights how far they've come in so short a time. Perhaps in 2011, Alire wouldn't have thought to have everyone act in their socks to minimise the creaking of old wooden floorboards, but in 2013, he took care of business so capably that we have to compare these pictures to notice how damn good he is now.

The odd writing is a standout too, though more because it's odd than for any quality or lack of it. Most scripts are notable because of how a writer does things and occasionally because of what they choose to do. Here it's mostly what Mills doesn't choose to do that's of note, eschewing so many conventional approaches that I can't help but wonder how this film will play on a second viewing. Beyond not taking the story where we expect, it's underwritten to the degree that the actors, Leatherman excluded, have to make their own opportunities because the material they're given doesn't make any obvious. Given this, it's fortunate that the cast are so reliable, each of the five leading actors happy to play this as an ensemble performance. They're so at home in their characters that it would be easy to imagine them coming back to replay the whole thing on stage night after night. If the story would hold up, it would be interesting to see it a few times to see how those portrayals develop.

The lack of opportunity Mills gave them extends to the supporting roles, where a number of Running Wild regulars expand on their running personae. The more Mills films I see, the more themes start to appear with recurring actors. Stacie Stocker is their chameleon, always calm and in control, whether as a bilingual agent in The French Spy, a damsel in distress in Star Babies or as the gang's boss here. Michael Coleman has played everything but notably plays a gay character here for the second movie running, having done likewise in Star Babies. It's interesting to see Mills, a noted ladies' man, writing so many gay male characters lately. Birthday girl Colleen Hartnett, so frequently paired with Michael Hanelin in Running Wild films, is paired with him again here, their gradual progression finally getting them into bed (and almost a shower) together, but not happily. Both played gay characters in Star Babies too, so Mills is having fun not getting them together on screen in the traditional manner.

I often wonder about how deliberately Mills does things in his films, but here it's entirely obvious that he's playing with everything. The question with this film is always going to come down to whether an audience member thinks he's successful or not. I enjoyed it but, an abiding inquisitiveness as to how it would stand up on a repeat viewing aside, I doubt I'll come back to it. Many audience members will be bored senseless, perhaps as much because of the lack of score as the lack of action. I'll be interested to see what people think of the ending, which plays well but is the antithesis of the usual grand finalé. Many will surely see it as a letdown, just as a few unexplained oddities in the script might be seen as letdowns, even though they don't break internal consistency. Perhaps The Men Who Robbed the Bank will find an audience more from actors, film critics and aficionados of the theatre than with the more traditional moviegoing public. This is as far from a multiplex movie as could be imagined.


Travis Mills said...

Very interesting review, Hal. I wanted to chime in on one thing... you have seen Frank Gonzalez before. He is the lead of ESCORT DRIVER. In fact, in this film, in the restaurant scene with Stacie Stocker, he claims that he used to be an "escort driver".


Hal C. F. Astell said...

You know, I caught that line and immediately thought of the short, but for some reason didn't twig that it was the same actor.

Of course, throwing that line in just helps to solidify a Travis Mills Universe in which all your films are set.

Travis Mills said...

Haha. I don't know about a "universe" but there are some connections.