Monday 1 September 2014

The Devil and Tom Walker (2014)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Ron Foltz, Kevin Phipps, Shelly Boucher, Raymond Scott and Patrick Giglio
On the face of it, Washington Irving's The Devil and Tom Walker, published pseudonymously in 1824 and set for the most part in a 'thickly wooded swamp' outside of Boston, might seem a difficult story to adapt to contemporary Arizona. This thought leapt quickly to mind as I revisit Travis Mills's adaptation for his 52 Films in 52 Weeks project because of the difficulty he found in adapting longer stories like The Return and The Liar in the weeks before this one. He does a much stronger job here, even though, as he did with the two earlier films, he excised a little more material than he should and altered the source story a little too much. Where that approach was problematic before, it's intriguing here, aided by an excellent location, a talented cast and a good eye for composition. If anything, the most troublesome aspect is the sound, not a common complaint on Running Wild pictures, as some dialogue out in the open is a little quiet. Perhaps that's due to James Alire only handling the sound in post-production.

The visuals are Arizona from moment one. The swamps and inlets of Massachusetts are replaced by the deserts and mountains of Arizona and they're captured well. There's a great static shot as the credits roll and Tom Walker wanders through the cacti towards the camera, underpinned by music by Ohioan that's as wide open as the landscape. We're introduced to Tom through Mills's opening narration, which sounds old but isn't from Irving's story, and to one of the changes Mills made to the material, namely that Walker isn't 'a meagre, miserly fellow', as Irving had it; he's merely ordinary, Ron Foltz as generic here as he was stirring in The Sisters. He's in the mountains being ordinary enough to hold his friends back, so he stops to let them enjoy their hike. They leave him water but he looks for more, finding it in the form of a water cooler attached to the fireplace that's all that remains of an old collapsed building in the middle of the desert. It's at once surreal, believable and metaphorically appropriate, a magnificent choice of location.

It's here that he encounters a rather grizzled and sunstricken Kevin Phipps, playing the Devil, Arizona as close to Hell as it gets. Phipps is known within the Arizona film community more as an acting coach and a director than an actor, but he does move in front of the camera on occasion and he's the obvious choice to play this part. I've always seen something of the trickster god in him and it's deceit and omnipotence that he's tasked with bringing out in this character. He gives a gloriously memorable performance, which to me screamed Torgo from Manos: The Hands of Fate, given all the twitching, the wild voice and wilder cactus infused walking stick. I asked him after the screening in February what his influences for the role were and he told me that he was channelling Michael Keaton as Beetlejuice, who heeded Jimmy Cagney's old advice that actors should never stop moving. Beetlejuice is more obvious in his little interjections and in his dialogue. 'Your wife's a bitch when you get up in the morning,' he growls to begin his pitch.
And of course the pitch is what this story is all about. In Irving's tale, Tom Walker is a miser, he's married to a miser and his miserly habits are enhanced through a deal with the Devil to become his moneylender in return for Captain Kidd's treasure. Mills switches this up a little, not only by replacing that gold with the gold from the Lost Dutchman mine, another neat little Arizona touch, but by making Walker driven not by his own characteristics but by those of his wife, to whom he is utterly subservient. Old Scratch wants Mrs Walker, while Tom wants her to be gone from his life; it isn't a difficult deal to make. When we meet Marcy Walker, we realise why. Shelly Boucher is as superbly cast as Foltz and Phipps, though she has much less screen time than them. If Eric Almassy was my big discovery from the 52 Films in 52 Weeks project, then Shelly Boucher came close and she only appeared in a couple of these shorts. By the time I saw this film, she'd already stunned me in A Mother; her brief but pristine portrayal here further underlined her talent.

Keeping Marcy Walker close to the character in Irving's story but changing Tom's dynamic means that the ending of the film has to change too and I wonder if that's what drove Mills to take this approach. There's an arrogance in it but also a peace, which makes it a highly attractive way to end the story, if not the far more traditional one that Irving used, which of course was old even when it was published in 1824; deals with the devil had been good fodder for storytellers for millennia with the Faust myth first seeing print in the sixteenth century. Perhaps Mills was more inspired by more recent American adaptations of the story, such as The Devil and Daniel Webster or even The Devil Went Down to Georgia. It's also ironic given that the real winners in the film are the two most outrageous characters. Boucher's Marcy is believably a 'tall termagant, fierce of temper, loud of tongue, and strong of arm', while Phipps is far from the 'great black man', 'swarthy and dingy, and begrimed with soot'. Both, however, are delightfully memorable.

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