Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Two Step (2015)

Two Step, the debut feature of Alex R. Johnson, seems like a dumb title, but it actually works. The simple rhythm of the country/western dance is great because it gives inexperienced dancers the sense that they can, in fact, dance, somewhat diminishing their anxiety about asking a girl to join them on the floor rather than standing awkwardly at the bar. In the world of dancing, it gives you the sense that you're suddenly in the game, when in fact it's partly an illusion, since you're really not because you're still clueless about other dances that are far more complex, impressive, and completely over your head. 

You can see it as a metaphor for the soothing "everything will be all right" line with regard to life in general. For the time, maybe, but things could just as easily get worse as they could better. That's sort of what happens to James (Skyy Moore), a college drop-out whose parents are dead and who seeks refuge at his grandmother's house only to find out she too has died. It's a pretty terrible situation for a kid who has absolutely nothing going on for him in life (he skipped classes largely to sit around and play video games). 

But luckily his grandmother's neighbor, a middle aged woman named Dot (Beth Broderick) comes to his aid and gives him that "everything will be all right," treatment, buying him beers at bar, talking to him, listening to him, and even teaching him the two-step. For the time it gives the kind of companionship and assurance he needs, but, like the dance, it can't really hold up to the troubles that life constantly brings.

For writer/director Johnson, that trouble comes in the form of a full-on southern noir potboiler plot, as James soon learns that his grandmother was giving money to a loose cannon named Webb (James Landry Herbert, a dead ringer for Peter Greene) under the impression he's some long lost grandson in need of financial help. Webb is fresh out of prison and owes a man in the town named Duane a whole lot of money, so he comes knocking on grandma's door to get more, only to find James there instead. 

James has barely been given a chance to become much of a character, and he looses it entirely when Webb arrives and ties him to a chair with a mouth gag, where he'll have to be for the rest of the movie. But that's not really what Johnson's going for here. In the early scenes I think he wanted to give the impression that this would be a film about character development and how two people can have a mutual impact on each other. Webb's intrusion, though, disrupts any real psychological complexity the film might have had. Once he ties James up, the movie becomes a relentless piece of visceral filmmaking where cash and blood go hand in hand and words have little value.

The dialogue is mostly workmanlike, but Johnson's got a good sense of presenting violence, often letting it occur either out of frame (the brutal initial beating of James) or off-screen, as when we hear Webb shoot someone while the camera slowly pushes along side his car in front of the house he's in.

If it's disappointing that the characters we care about basically become objects once Webb starts causing trouble, it's mostly justified by the fact that this is a movie about disruptions. James' life is disrupted when his parents die (an event preceding the film's narrative), when he's kicked out of school, when his grandmother dies, and when Webb comes calling. In a way, the film sees life as a series of disruptions, just like when you dance the two-step, feeling confident, and then see the couple next to you swing dance you back to your drink at the bar. 

For a debut feature, this reminded me a little bit of the Coen's first film, Blood Simple, sans the dark wit. And from a narrative standpoint, there's definitely some No Country for Old Men vibes given: James as the mostly dull guy who happens upon a lot of money is a lot like Lewellyn Moss, while Dot is the older character with a past she regrets and who never actually is confronted with violence, only its aftermath. And then of course Webb is like Chigurh in his use of bloodshed, except that his motives are far less interesting and complex. 

In any event, you get the sense of where Johnson's coming from as a first-time filmmaker, and while Two Step doesn't much linger after the fact, it's a confident debut and makes me curious to see where he goes from here. 

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