Thursday 30 January 2014

Rain Dog (2013)

Director: Jordan Wippell
Actors: Shayne McKean, Robert Sullivan, Jake Bowtell, Sam Bowtell, Trish and Paul Kenny, Lewis Wetherbee and Andy Polwarth
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.
It isn't particularly surprising to find that Recipe for Love was made by a high school student, however capably made it was. Rain Dog is a different creature entirely: it's a blistering black and white drama about a boxer searching for redemption and it aims high enough to prompt comparisons with serious filmmakers. Like its central character, the film carries quite a punch. It was made by Jordan Wippell, a young Australian who apparently flew out to support this film's selection for the High School Shorts set at last year's Phoenix Film Festival. Sadly I missed all this, but Wippell certainly made his presence felt and he'll be back in 2014 to study at the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe. Like Gwyneth Christoffel, who's already started there, I'm eager to see how he affects the films that will come out of UAT over the next few years. I've only seen two of his films thus far, the other being his very different entry into the ABCs of Death 2 competition, M is for Miscellaneous, but both are outstanding.

It's far easier to list the many things that Wippell did right here than to track down some of the things he did wrong. The soundtrack is the first clear success, a dark and brooding electric guitar that sounds like it'll bring a storm in its wake and it does indeed. It's far more modern than the agreeably old school title card that suggests a film noir; the film is shot in black and white and uses expressionistic lighting, but feels newer than a picture from the forties. The title itself is a memorable one, though this doesn't reference Rain Dogs, the equally memorable Tom Waits song; nobody in this film dances with the Rose of Tralee. Instead, our unnamed lost man works through a brutal dance card, taking spins with neglect, starvation and eventually destiny, as an unwanted child who finds his way onto the streets where he joins a gang to survive. It's another man who gets to dance with Death though, after this child, now a vicious adult, beats him up and leaves him in a coma. This victim powerfully bookends the film.
It takes only four hours for this thug to be picked up and he's soon given fifteen years at Her Majesty's pleasure. He's inside when we first see him, pounding a punching bag in slow motion. Wippell uses this technique a lot in Rain Dog and, while it's an easy one to overdo, it always seems appropriate here, as the film has a poetic flow. We hear this boxer before we see him, though the voice and body belong to two different people; the boxer is Shayne McKean but his narration is by Robert Sullivan. McKean looks the part, an imposing presence who seems dangerous, especially in slow motion and aided by beautiful transitions. Yet it's Sullivan who instils him with depth, sounding utterly perfect for this: a worn, broken, textured voice, surely one of experience. It's achingly full of regret and latent realisation, as you might imagine, but it's also full of lost chances. He stumbles over more complex musings as if he's struggling for the words, believably for a character who has presumably had little formal education.

Put together, they're a creature to be reckoned with, but of course the film firmly puts the reckoning in their hands. This man has done what he's done and he's had fifteen years to come to terms with why. I appreciated how thoughtfully the character was created; he's clearly not a good guy but he's trying to figure out how not to be a bad guy. He doesn't expect our sympathy, but he's sincere enough to gain a little. He wants to find a way to redeem himself but he's unable to do so. The scene where he tries is one of the most powerful in the film, where we know everything that's said and done even with nothing to hear except that wild, swirling guitar. He's merely there, the calm within a storm that's been a long time bottled up and waiting to erupt, but it's telling that for once he isn't the storm itself. The choices Wippell made in constructing this slice of dark poetry are astoundingly mature for such a young man. I plan to work through the rest of his output online while eagerly awaiting what he'll create at UAT.

Rain Dog can be viewed online for free at YouTube.

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