Once again, a crop of low-budget films finds its way into our multiplexes this week for our edification. You might well turn to these films for a respite after an exhausting summer filled with one blockbuster after another, but an independent vision and a handmade feel are no guarantees of a good movie. So let’s see how they stack up.
I’ll start with the least of them. For some reason, this seems to be the year for Matthew F. Jones movies. We already had Tomorrow You’re Gone (based on Jones’ novel Boot Tracks), and this week we get A Single Shot, adapted for the screen by the novelist himself from the similarly named book. This bleak thriller, which opens at AMC Grapevine Mills, is a somewhat better movie than Tomorrow You’re Gone, but given that they’re obsessed with the same subjects and marred by the same flaws, it doesn’t make much difference.
A spottily employed guy living in the West Virginia backwoods, John Moon (Sam Rockwell) goes out hunting one morning and shoots what he thinks is a deer but turns out to be a young woman carrying a duffel bag full of cash. Hoping to salvage something good out of a bad situation, John tries to cover up the killing and use the money to buy back his family farm and win back his ex-wife (Kelly Reilly) and their young son. Unfortunately, as duffel bags full of cash are wont to do, this one leads back to some bad people who want their money back.
The cast has an unexpectedly heavy British contingent (Reilly, Jason Isaacs, Joe Anderson) portraying these Appalachian rednecks, but the most embarrassing performance doesn’t come from one of them. No, that dubious honor goes to William H. Macy as John’s lawyer. The part — which requires him to walk with a limp and wear a bad hairpiece and loud suits — is practically an invitation to overact, and it’s one that Macy all too gladly accepts. Meanwhile, the best supporting turn here comes from another Brit, Ophelia Lovibond (last seen in Mr. Popper’s Penguins), who provides a welcome note of sunshine as a college student.
However, all she can do is light up the gloom for a few minutes. Director David M. Rosenthal takes Jones’ themes of sin and redemption and turns them into a movie that plays like Dostoyevsky without the sense of humor, full of glowering skies and ominous backwoods landscapes. On paper, the ferociously self-contained Rockwell is a perfect choice for playing John, whose guilty secret closes him off from everyone else. In practice, he’s stranded and turns in one of his least distinctive performances. Making matters worse is composer Atli Örvarsson, filling the score with Penderecki-style wailing strings. The movie does have a few moments of phantasmagoric power, like when John comes home to his trailer and finds evidence of his guilt in his bed. There isn’t enough of this, though. Seven years ago, an Argentinian film called The Aura used a similar story and got much more out of it. You’re better off tracking down that movie than seeing A Single Shot.
The Colony isn’t exactly a laugh riot, either, but this science fiction movie at least remembers to deliver a modicum of pulpy entertainment. The film is set on a future postapocalyptic Earth, where climate change has brought on another ice age, forcing the planet’s remaining humans to survive underground. The bulk of the story takes place at a colony that barely scrapes by, growing its own food and even keeping small livestock. When they lose radio contact with the only other known colony, the leader (Laurence Fishburne) assembles a party consisting of our hero Sam (Kevin Zegers) and a not-quite-ready teenager (Atticus Mitchell) to brave the ice and snow and find out what happened.
This is the first movie from director/co-writer Jeff Renfroe since his well-intentioned but flat 2007 thriller Civic Duty. You can easily give the cheesy special effects a pass, since the filmmakers have limited financial means and clearly chose to spend them on reputable supporting actors. Less easy to pass over are the cardboard characters given to said actors — Bill Paxton is stuck playing the number-two guy at the colony, who might as well be wearing a t-shirt that says, “I’m going to stage a coup.” When the fate of the other colony is revealed midway through, it’s not nearly as horrifying as the movie seems to think. The one exchange of dialogue between Sam and the head bad guy (Dru Viergever) is a regrettable lapse, too.
Still, Renfroe does have a way with filming action. The fight sequences are executed cleanly, and the issues are laid out lucidly as the searchers first find out what happened at the other colony and then work to keep the unpleasantness from spreading to their own colony. By keeping the focus on the action and not telling us what to think, Renfroe invites us to fill in the blanks in this future world, as we ponder its contours and imagine how we might survive in such an inhospitable climate. Lacking in pretension, the movie is an agreeable way to kill 90 minutes.
If the first two movies are too grim for you, Thanks for Sharing will give you some laughs. This sex addiction comedy has an A-list cast attached to it as well as a ritzy Manhattan setting, but it qualifies as an indie film due to its low budget, small scale, and distribution by the small outfit Roadside Attractions. It’s the first movie directed by Stuart Blumberg (who co-wrote The Kids Are All Right), and its actors make it worth watching despite its wobbles.
The main character is Adam (Mark Ruffalo), a successful environmental consultant for big businesses and a recovering sex addict who hasn’t engaged in any activity in five years. When he meets a triathlete named Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow) who likes his sense of humor, he’s unsure how to go about a serious relationship with her. To complicate matters, before he has a chance to reveal his problem to her, she tells him about her alcoholic ex-boyfriend and swears never to date another addict.
Ruffalo seems to be at his best playing guys who are desperately looking for a way out of their neuroses, so the role here is right in his wheelhouse. He and Paltrow have a liquid chemistry that makes them an easy couple to watch as they try to make this arrangement work. I wish the movie had gotten more into Phoebe’s issues, hinted at in her weird food predilections, which come up during a tetchy argument ignited when a suspicious Phoebe demands to see Adam’s phone when he talks to someone late at night.
The leads are boosted by nice turns by Tim Robbins as Adam’s sponsor and Isiah Whitlock Jr. as an alcoholic subcontractor who has to be talked down after having a meltdown on the job. Arguably better than the main plot is the subplot involving two other sex addicts, a mama’s boy of an ER doctor (Josh Gad) and a hard-shelled hairdresser (the pop singer Pink, acting under her given name of Alecia Moore), as they discover the simple and novel pleasures of a platonic friendship. They both do well with their respective rehab monologues as they realize how helpless they are in the face of their addictions, and Pink has a nice sense of comic timing, while Gad gets a triumphant moment late in the film that will make you want to pump your fist.
I wish, though, that the moment hadn’t been brought about by a blatant deus ex machina. In fact, Blumberg could do a better job of structuring this movie: With so many major characters coming to crises at the same time, the whole affair comes out too lathery. This keeps Thanks for Sharing from the level of better films about sex addiction like Clark Gregg’s Choke, Steve McQueen’s Shame, and Caveh Zahedi’s I Am a Sex Addict. Still, even if this movie doesn’t say much new about the nature of addiction, it does find laughs in potentially depressing subject matter, and that’s always an accomplishment.
A Single Shot
Starring Sam Rockwell and Kelly Reilly. Directed by David M. Rosenthal. Written by Matthew F. Jones, based on his own novel. Rated R.
Starring Kevin Zegers, Laurence Fishburne, and Bill Paxton. Directed by Jeff Renfroe. Written by Jeff Renfroe, Patrick Tarr, Pascal Trottier, and Svet Rouskov.
Thanks for Sharing
Starring Mark Ruffalo and Gwyneth Paltrow. Directed by Stuart Blumberg. Written by Stuart Blumberg and Matt Winston. Rated R.