Back Roads

Harley and Callie confront each other

 

Having played the junior James Bond figure Alex Rider in Stormrider, and then a few teenage heartthrobs before bulking up to become a kind of Channing Tatum in waiting, Alex Pettyfer takes control of his own destiny by starring in his own film. It’s his directorial debut and a pretty good one, a knotty piece of American trash gothic about a family in trouble.

As we open, Pettyfer’s blood-stained Harley is being grilled by cop Robert Patrick. Why did you kill her, the cop wants to know. But the question this film actually asks is not why but who?

We know it’s a woman who’s dead, but which woman exactly? Harley’s life is full of women. There’s his mother, currently in prison for killing her husband, the three younger sisters Harley is now bringing up single handed, the therapist he’s seeing for reasons which become clearer as the film becomes darker, and the mother of one of Harley’s sister’s friends.

The film then unfolds in flashback and is as much a story about guilt and innocence as a murder thriller. More than that, it’s also the story of a family who are all dealing in different ways with the fallout from abuse – Harley is given to wild mood swings and is touchingly (wilfully?) naive. His almost invariably scantily clad sister Amber (Nicola Peltz) deals with the abuse by having sex with anyone, anyhow. For his other sister Misty (Chiara Aurelia) it’s an unhealthy interest in firearms. Only youngest sister Jody (Hala Finley) seems unscathed, though it’s all relative.

 

Harley in his work clothes
Harley drudges to keep the family together

 

How the kids got into this state is revealed as the film progresses, in a plotline neatly interwoven with the original one about who wound up dead.

The link between the two is Callie Mercer (Jennifer Morrison), the local MILF with the hots for Harley and with no idea what she’s getting into.

Adrian Lyne is one of the writers and was originally meant to direct. The legacy of that is evident in the sex scenes between Harley and Callie, sweaty with Fatal Attraction/9½Weeks steam.

Otherwise, it’s an elegantly directed film, cool and assured – perhaps too cool at times considering what we’re watching – and like a lot of actors who turn to directing, Pettyfer gives the cast its head. He’s rewarded with great performances all round – Morrison and Peltz are the standouts as women ambivalent about their sexual commodification. Hotness is power, after all.

Increasingly reminiscent psychologically of Gary Oldman’s directorial debut, Nil By Mouth, another dark tale of a family in extremis, Back Roads shares its conclusions about the effects of prolonged abuse – it bends things out of shape, and in ways that are not easily plotted on a graph.

Without revealing the denouement, I’m trying to say that things get very dark, histrionic even, as this film slowly transforms from being about the identity of the victim to the identity of the perpetrator, or perpetrators.

A word about Robert Patrick and Juliette Lewis. They’re often brought in to a terrible film to deliver a bit of cult cultural baggage, if nothing else. Patrick has no room to flex here – he’s a cop asking questions and gets about five minutes screen time. So does Lewis, but in her five minutes, even though she’s playing a woman in prison, she delivers one of those performances you don’t want to take your eyes off.

But this isn’t a terrible film. In fact it’s a pretty good one, especially if you like dark dramas about the devastating effects of sex when it’s let out of its box.

 

 

Back Roads – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

Catch and Release

Jennifer Garner in Catch and Release

 

 

Having written the entirely acceptable Erin Brockovich and the entirely terrible 28 Days, Susannah Grant makes her directorial debut with a dog of a rom-com starring Jennifer Garner as the girl mourning the death of her fiancé, learning that he wasn’t as perfect as she had thought, and turning to his friend (Timothy Olyphant) for succour and much else besides.

How awful a rom-com premise is that? Such was your love for someone, so impactful was his death, so stricken are you by the news that he might well have been a scumbag, that you decide to start making big eyes at the nearest available sexy guy. True, it might happen in real life, but that still doesn’t make it a great rom-com premise.

Worse than that there’s the distinct impression that everyone working on this film has taken one step back from the whole enterprise. For example, no one has pointed out to Grant – probably tearing her hair out with the thousand and one things that plague a first-time director – that her star is clearly pregnant, though Garner’s character certainly isn’t in the screenplay. Nor has anyone had a word in Grant’s ear about Olyphant’s spectacularly wooden performance – he is normally a lot better than this. Further down the cast list there are good people doing good work – Sam Jaeger, Juliette Lewis, Fiona Shaw. Most particularly there’s a comic performance by Kevin Smith (director of Clerks) who decides that he might as well have some fun and is almost energetic, fresh and funny enough to save the movie. I said almost.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Catch and Release – at Amazon

 

 

 

Cape Fear

Robert De Niro as Max Cady in Cape Fear

Robert Mitchum as Max Cady in Cape Fear

It’s compare and contrast time. Max Cady, a psychopath recently out of stir after a long stretch for rape, sets out to terrorise lawyer Sam Bowden who he believes withheld information about his case at the trial which resulted in him going down. The original, directed by cult British director J. Lee Thompson in 1962, starred Robert Mitchum as the avenging psycho (a role he’d perfected in 1955’s Night Of The Hunter) and Gregory Peck as the apparently decent lawyer. Both turn up again in cameos in Martin Scorsese’s remake, in which things aren’t quite so clear cut. This time around Bowden (now played by Nick Nolte) is a lousy lawyer, and a philandering husband to boot, and Cady (Robert De Niro) isn’t just bad, he’s positively evil. The later version amps up the sex, too. Remember the infamous scene where Bowden’s daughter (Juliette Lewis) sucks the finger of Max Cady in the empty school theatre? And of course there’s Scorsese’s wham-bam hurricane-tossed ending. But sex, a big budget and lots of special effects to one side, the consensus seems to have it that Thompson’s is the better film, that drama as stormy as this works best when set in an age of innocence. As well as an elemental good versus evil thrust, Thompson also has Bernard Herrmann’s jangly score to help him along too, plus his instinct for the pace of a scene. Scorsese is, to be fair to him, after something more nuanced. His isn’t a clear-cut world of good v evil – everyone has done something that stinks in his Cape Fear. But does his finessing of moral positions make for a more satisfying, more humane drama, or a less dynamic film? Or both? Coming one year after Goodfellas Scorsese’s Cape Fear was fighting not just Thompson’s film but his own reputation.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Cape Fear (1962) – at Amazon

Cape Fear (1991) – at Amazon

 

Natural Born Killers

Juliette Lewis and Woody Harrelson in Natural Born Killers

 

 

 

 

Oliver Stone’s notorious film about two dim kids who kill a few people and become media celebrities takes two actors who weren’t exactly the go-to choices for crazy nutjob killer roles. Woody Harrelson was fresh from playing affable dunce Woody in Cheers and Juliette Lewis was uppermost in the mind as the daughter in Cape Fear. As it turned out the roles fit them like a second skin. As in similar gangster/road movies such as Badlands or Bonnie & Clyde, writer Quentin Tarantino and director Stone send their two fuck-ups off on a series of murders. But, unusually, they also send them off on a stylistic journey through a storm of different generic TV styles – advertising, sitcom, news etc. This allows both Tarantino and Stone to show how down with popular culture they are. And to deliver the big message : the media might not create murderous misfits but they certainly exploit them – especially if the murderers in question are sexy. This is an Oliver Stone film so the main point about media culpability is overdone. If we’re being kind this is deliberate, Stone is aping news media’s habit of chewing and chewing until whatever it’s bitten off has been reduced to pap. This excess of stylistics also handily does away with the need for a character who “explains it all”. Stone’s focus on almost all branches of the media – except very obviously the movie business – did come back to bite him however. On the film’s release, TV and newspapers went for him like a baying pack and accused the director of making a film liable to pervert weak minds and encourage violence. Thus missing the point entirely – deliberately, of course – so Stone’s wider issue of the “famous-for-15-monstrosities” culture got completely ignored. Yet violence is not the film’s point at all. And even if it were – how many people did Freddie Kruger kill?

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Natural Born Killers – at Amazon