Thursday 14 November 2013

Strong Arm of the Law (2013)

Director: Paul Vernon
Stars: Tobias Tolnay, Tony Booth, Brandon Dorssom, Steve Dorssom and Mary Tisdale

Paul Vernon, who wrote and directed this short, was the most unlikely character I met at the Jerome Indie Film and Music Festival this year. With a programme heavily biased towards local Arizona film, I was expecting to meet a lot of local Arizona filmmakers, but Vernon hails from back home in the old country. He's a Londoner by birth but he lives further west, not so far west as you might expect from the gunslinging setting of this film, just far enough to see it premiƩred in his new home last month at the Southampton International Film Festival. That's a long way from Jerome, but he shot it entirely in Arizona, making good use of countryside that simply isn't available back home. The western town we see at one point is the Gammons Gulch set in Benson, AZ, an hour east of Tucson, which I really need to make a trip out to see. The rest was mostly shot around Camp Verde and at a ranch outside Dewey-Humboldt. No footage was shot in Jerome, but it would be great to see this there next year.

I'm not sure how Paul will take this but the weakest link may be his source material. That's a country song of the same name by Aaron Watson for which this serves as an extended music video a dozen years after its release. It's not a bad song, but it tells a predictable story and so hamstrings Vernon's ability to dramatise it. The good news is that he doesn't do anything flash, merely brings the words to life for us to see, at least in the nine minute Ranger's Festival Edit. There's also a Director's Ultimate Edit, which extends the story to twenty minutes; while it adds a neat twist, it's a notably lesser piece for a whole slew of reasons. The nine minute version is the one to see, told in simple vignettes which accompany the story song well. The camera zooms and movements are a little obvious but they're capable; it's fair to call the sure and steady editing appropriate for a story inevitable enough to end with a ride into a sunset, getting suitably more active and emotional only during the gunfights.

Because the song plays behind half of the film, there's not a lot of dialogue for the actors to play with but that fits the archetypal nature of the story. Steve Dorssom looks good as a Texas ranger fishing in a creek, once again supporting his son Brandon; the last couple of times I've seen him he was behind a drumkit playing for Ripsaw or Born of Fire, so it's good to finally see him act. He's not in the film for long though, as an outlaw rides up to shoot him dead before he can grab his guns, prompting his son to become a Texas ranger himself in order to seek and find vengeance. Anyone who's heard the song will know how that plays out, though frankly anyone who hasn't heard it can safely guess it anyway; westerns have never been known for innovative storylines and this one was old by the time sound came to film. However Vernon, obviously a big western fan because he credits the horses, treats the time honoured material with deference and lets it all unfold as it if was the first time.

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