2015 has been a great year for indie movies. To wit, three of the best films I've seen this year have been micro-budgeted films that have seemingly come out of left field but gained no small amount of notoriety and critical praise. IT FOLLOWS set the independent horror filmmaking clock back to zero and stands along the best of the genre (JOHN CARPENTER'S HALLOWEEN, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, to name a few.) Joel Edgerton's suspense-thriller THE GIFT (see review below) was on no one's radar but has played in theaters for several months due to strong word of mouth and could very well be headed for Best Original Screenplay honors come awards season.
Which brings us to another - though, sadly, lesser seen- standout that also puts a fresh spin on a well worn genre: the rural crime drama which includes such esteemed company such as Terrence Malick's BADLANDS, The Coen Bros' BLOOD SIMPLE, and Clint Eastwood's A PERFECT WORLD.
COP CAR, which was released in early August and is just now available on DVD, stars degree-defying stalwart Kevin Bacon as Sheriff Kretzer, a crooked police officer who we discover isn't much in the brains department but has man aged to outsmart himself during a clandestine cover-up operation by leaving his cruiser unattended (and keys still in the ignition) in a barren field on the outskirts of town. Two pre-teen boys, Travis and Harrison, stumble across the abandoned vehicle and decide to go on an improvised joyride. When Kretzer realizes his folly, he furiously tries to recover his car while also trying to cover his tracks.
Travis and Harrison teach themselves to drive as they meander down a largely untraveled highway but their unexpected adventure is interrupted when they start to uncover clues that the owner of their purloined ride is up to no good. Camryn Mannheim co-stars as a woman unfortunate enough to witness the boys careening down the two-lane blacktop road while the increasingly ubiquitous character actor Shea Wigham appears as one of Kretzer's loose ends in human form.
Director and co-writer Jon Watts (the script credit is shared with Christopher D. Ford) allows the story to dictate the atmosphere and pace of the film which is a hybrid of sorts of STAND BY ME and BADLANDS, two other films that begin with a similarly idyllic tone and slowly amp up to suspenseful and even frightening at times. The casting of the two young leads (James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellsford) is the film's masterstroke as both actors are completely believable as well as unaffected in their naivete and competitive repartee.
It's Bacon however who provides the crucial element of menace as well as some humor as Kretzer stands among the greatest of dumb movie villains who still manages to keep the audience on edge. The actor appears lean, haggard, and sports a drooping mustache that seems to mirror his intelligence.
COP CAR is a thoroughly enjoyable and captivating film and like the best independent films, it's greatness surpasses the limits of its budget and artistic restraints.
Joel Edgerton's THE GIFT is just what it's title suggests - an alluring cinematic package that unfolds with escalating suspense and when the surprises inside the mystery box are finally revealed, the audience, as well as the film's two lead characters, are left dizzy from the twists and turns they have just experienced.
This ferocious wolf-in-sheep's-clothing drama stars the fine actors Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall as Simon and Robyn, a married couple moving into a gorgeous new house in Los Angeles with floor-to-ceiling glass walls and a koi pond just outside their front walkway, though as the realtor in the opening scene cheerfully tells them, they have to provide their own fish. During a shopping excursion at a high-end clothing store, Simon and Robyn are just about to pay for their items when they are interrupted by a man whose tan Member's Only jacket is a clear sign he doesn't shop there. He introduces himself as Gordon and tells Simon that he used to know him back in high school when Simon was Class President. Simon doesn't quite place him right away but genially plays along and by the end of the awkward exchange, Robyn has invited Gordon over to their new place for dinner.
Gordon, nicknamed "Gordo the Weirdo" in high school, arrives at their new abode bearing a gift - a wrapped bottle of wine. During the course of the meal, Gordon cryptically muses that gifts can be both good or bad and even the bad ones can turn out to be good. The slightly snobbish Simon clearly is regretful of inviting this oddball to his home but the more down-to-earth Robyn is actually charmed by his unpretentious manner.
I'm going to stop describing the next crucial points leading to the plot because THE GIFT is a movie best experienced knowing as little as possible going in. Suffice to it say that the wine Gordon gave Simon and Robyn is merely the first of several gifts he will be presenting them, each one becoming less and less welcomed and Gordon's seemingly good intentions more questionable. The film takes turns that only a psychic can see coming and the tension that builds from one scene to the next becomes almost unbearably palpable. A sense of dread hangs over the majority of the ensuing action and one of the many pleasures of the movie is listening to the audience making connections and responding with audible "oohs" and "ahhs" as if they were watching a boxing match..
As the film delivers its final knockout punch, I was reminded of Bryan Singer's similarly twisty thriller THE USUAL SUSPECTS but director Joel Edgerton, who not only also wrote the screenplay but also plays Gordon, hasn't just created a tall tale to fool its audience but rather has woven a complex storyline about karma and retribution that is all too relatable. Every high school has at least one misfit that the crueler students delight in tormenting and after seeing THE GIFT you will wonder what role you played in that scenario. As anyone who ever had their heart broken as a teenager knows, some scars never heal.
Remarkable in every way, from Edgerton's keen sense of frame composition to the terrific and surprising performances of the three lead actors, THE GIFT gets my vote for the best film released so far this year and is not to be missed.