Tuesday 6 May 2014

The Last Responders (2013)

Director: Andrea M Magwood
Stars: James Ray, Kamilah Sheats, Raymond Scott, Rick Bell, Adam Abel, Colleen Balestreri, Debbie Overbey, Jim Coates, Sean Worsley and Aida Giurgianu

Here's an interesting one: a new local short in which what doesn't happen seems to be more important than what does. If I suggest that it revolves around a crime scene investigator dealing with the loss of an old partner while training up a new one, I'm sure you'll instantly imagine exactly what it'll look like. Well, you'll be wrong, as was I. This is not some cheap local take on CSI: Miami, thank goodness, though I bet that lead actor James Ray could do a capable impression of David Caruso's sunglasses pose if he has enough to drink. Drea Magwood, the writer, director and producer of the film worked in an ME's office for three years, albeit not in the field, so she's aware of what the people who really do this job are like. She quite clearly felt drawn to bring to the screen something that speaks to the reality of the work, which is neither magnetically glamorous nor incessantly gruesome. Unlike all the shows you've seen on TV, this one's most prominent component, quite refreshingly, is space.

The chillingly but appropriately named Death Investigator is Theodore Davis, played by an understated James Ray. As the picture begins he's at the memorial service for his former partner, Elise. In fact, as we quickly find in an evocative dolly shot backwards from the eulogising priest, he is the memorial service. The church is otherwise empty until Patricia Anderson, his new trainee, calls him out to a scene. Clearly Davis is strongly affected by his loss but Elise's death underpins everything. He's inherently surrounded by death because of his job, neatly highlighted by his working for the Chindi County ME's office, as Chindi translates roughly from the Navajo as 'death'. However, even while doing this, his mind is stuck trying to figure out this particular death and we're drawn into that. We're given few details as to how or why, just hints to be explained in the full feature that will include this short as a flashback sequence. The lack of details endows the film with a sense of mystery, one without a resolution, and that's a recurring theme.
We may be used to TV episodes where the case of the week is always wrapped up neatly before the last commercial break, but I found this far more believable. Who says the answers will always show up? Who says that the folk who attend the scene, bag up the body and drive it back for an autopsy will ever hear them? Even if they come up with good theories from the immediate information gathered, what's to say that they'll ever find out if they were right? The only thing they can be sure of is that there will soon be another scene with another body for them to attend and do their jobs. The scene we attend with them is a telling one. It's a man on the ground in a back yard, recognisably Sean Worsley from that shock of hair, and the professionalism immediately takes over. I can explain that we see photo taking, detail checking, fingerprint capturing, blood sampling, note scrawling, all the minutiae we might expect but that makes it all sound busy. It's the opposite: full of space, as these last responders quietly go about their business.

Many may well see this as a fault, but I relished in it. It's a simple scene: a dead body with a knife nearby in the grass. It's a banal suburban back yard, nothing flash. The sun is out, so light is good without a hint of neon to spice up the colour palette. There are no crazy characters crowding the scene, merely a softly spoken cop to welcome them. There's no clever banter as they work, just a believable back and forth as needed. The calm and thoughtful score by Robert Hutchison, Jr is repetitious and politely passive like it's background music to a puzzle game. The only excitement shows up with Debbie Overbey, as a distraught family member, prompting Davis to become literally a shoulder to cry on. And with their work done, they head to the van to finish up paperwork before returning to the office. I appreciated this sequence, mostly because it was so underplayed. Sure, a whole season of this sort of thing would be cancelled in a flash; reality shows are shows, not reality. For once, though, it's so refreshing to see it play out for real.

So I relished in the slow pace, the thoughtful music, the underplayed lead. I appreciated too the lack of resolution, the uneventful routine, the unanswered questions. To be honest, for that very reason, I might just end up preferring this short to the eventual feature, to be shot in 2015, that will bring at least some of those answers. James Ray is always believable playing trustworthy characters in authority and Death Investigator Davis is another one to add to his string. Kamilah Sheats and Raymond Scott back him up well, as does Jim Coates as the boss, but none have the screen time to establish themselves; perhaps in the feature. All that held me back was how technically deliberate it feels. Transitions between scenes, camera movements, choice of shots and the cuts between them are all appropriate, but carry a weight, as if the film was so carefully constructed that the moment is in danger of being lost. A picture with so much delicious space ought to feel looser. Reality isn't quite so reliable.

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