Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time! Dale Coop (Aaron Nee), fresh out of the Navy, has the misfortune to return to his brother Roy's (Adam Nee) San Francisco apartment right before two thugs named Teddy (Thomas Jay Ryan, Jon Gries) show up. At first, they don't believe he isn't his brother. And then, they don't care—they just want to vent their boss's wrath on someone with that surname. When you work for a guy named Bobo, there's a strong incentive to get results. The tall one's a tad nicer than the other, but when your blood's spilling out like heat over the desert, you often miss such minute details. And to think, all Dale wanted to do was write the great American novel, The Last Stand, then relax in the lap of luxury the rest of his life. Instead, he's tortured for information he doesn't have. That's never 'a good thing.'
A mysterious dark-haired stranger in the person of Veronica (Elina Löwensohn, of the Seinfeld "The Gymnast" episode fame) arrives. She tends Dale's wounds, provides a ready ear to his dreams and a shoulder to cry on. But like everyone in this film except Dale, she is NOT who she seems to be. She's right about one thing, though—the two of them have to find Roy before 'they' do.
Cut to Roy and Mad Dog Mantee (Shea Whigham) at the latter's hideout off Highway 301. They've kidnapped a young girl, Lulu (Lena Hill), who isn't doing well. Roy tries to ease her pain, with dire consequences. You see, Roy is nearly as scared of Mad Dog as Lulu is, with good reason. And yet, Mad Dog is NOT a mindless barbarian. His moves are calculated, his every action designed to keep in balance his somewhat skewed sense of right and wrong. In his own words, 'I'm not crazy—I'm just mad.' An aside: Mad Dog's fable of the dancing chicken is worth the price of admission alone.
After Lulu is, well, out of the picture, Mad Dog and Roy are on the run. They wind up at a place called Union's Roost in South of Heaven, TX. The owner, Rooster (Joe Unger), owes Mad Dog big time—well, at least three times, by the latter's math. Rooster lives there with his daughter, Lily (Diora Baird), whom he adopted, to use the term very loosely. She's basically subservient to the others, but she's got a good heart and a good head on her shoulders. She can think on her feet and act decisively when she has to. And believe me, she indeed has to. For example, when the character now known as Nobody arrives to settle old scores. They get settled all right—the HARD way. It may seem like there's no way all this could possibly tie together in the end, but trust me—it does.
Warning: these characters will grab ahold of you and NOT LET GO! The minimalist sets, especially the cheesy Western backdrop, serve to draw you in to them. The lack of long or outdoor shots results in slices of this claustrophobic world being all the characters see, and hence, all that WE see. But that's all we NEED to see. When you're looking into people's souls, you don't care if the background is Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon or the loneliest road in America in northern Nevada, in the vicinity of the Pawn Daddy pawn shop.
The whole production, with its disparate scenes, and with characters in one set seldom interacting with those in others, comes off more as a play than it does a film, to good effect. According to the director, this look and feel was intentional. Everything is punctuated by Russ Howard III's unobtrusive yet mesmerizing score. Excellent performances all around, especially Whigham, who appears to have been playing Mad Dog every day of his life. In person, he's quite a nice guy—no, really. The real life brothers Nee fit their respective roles like matching gloves, and Baird, though her character's subdued compared with the rest, is strong as a woman who's tougher and smarter than she looks.
Make no mistake—this is a VIOLENT film. But hey—when you create strong characters with unsavoury pasts, well, that's pretty much unavoidable. South of Heaven is as far off the path from a traditional Western as you can get—more offbeat than your wildest dreams. And WAY more entertaining.
South of Heaven (2008) [world premiere], Blue Maria Productions, 97 mins. www.bluemaria.com. Director / Writer, J.L. Vara. I give this film 3 stars (out of 4).
Coming to this website REAL SOON NOW … my exclusive interview with
Director / Writer J.L. Vara + stars Diora Baird, Adam Nee and Shea
From left to right: Aaron Nee (Dale Coop), Diora Baird (Lily), Adam Nee (Roy Coop), Shea Whigham (Mad Dog Mantee), Jon Gries (Teddy the Hood 1).
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