My final Toronto Film Festival viewing was Simon and Zeke Hawkins‘ We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, and I must say it was nice to finish up with a little pulp-noir action and smart-director pizazz. A crafty small-town crime drama with a romantic triangle undercurrent and written by Dutch Southern (now there’s a name of a surly, swaggering, whiskey-sipping, Gauloises-inhaling, doobie-toking writer who drives a muscle car and wears motorcycle boots!), Place is technically an original tale but not really. For the main order of business (or so it seems) is paying tribute to the legendary hardboiled stylings of crime-fiction writer Jim Thompson, who is discussed in the opening chit-chat scene between lead protagonists Bobby (Jeremy Allen White, who eyeballs and mood-trips like a cross between Sean Penn and James Dean) and Sue (the pretty, antelope-like Mackenzie Davis). It’s like sitting in a film-school class with the teacher clapping his hands and barking “okay, get out your notepads, people…they’re making it easy for you!”
“There are 32 ways to write a story,” Sue quotes Thompson, “but there’s only one plot: things are not what they seem.” Except things are what they seem this time around. Some young filmmakers sat down and said to each other, “Let’s cook up a film in the vein of Joel and Ethan Coen‘s Blood Simple and for good measure let’s wave the Thompson flag…something that’ll give the critics a nice bone-on. And then rustle up a story about drawlin’ low-rent rurals (except for Bobby and Sue) involved in theft and betrayal and murder and dirty money and just lay it on, man…keep the dialogue sassy but plain and steeped in downmarket South Texas yokel culture and urge our actors playing bad guys to perform colorfully and eccentrically except for William Devane…he can just do his usual low-key, cynical, taciturn thing…and generally play the Thompson noir game, which of course means keep it tight and taut and sordid.”
We all know the drill with this kind of material so it’s almost so it’s almost pointless to ask “does it have to be this sordid and violent and sadistic?” I had the same reaction to Michael Winterbottom‘s The Killer Inside Me (2010), an adaptation of the same-titled 1952 Thompson novel. Birds of a feather, same line of country.
Except for smart, sensitive and college-bound Bobby and Sue. (The latter is also very well read.) The fact that they aren’t resigned and sardonic types who are stuck in some form of quicksand puts them well outside the usual Thompson realm. During that first scene you’re thinking right away that Bobby and Sue ought to be boyfriend and girlfriend, but of course they’re not. We soon learn that Sue is hooked up with B.J. (Logan Hoffman), a pea-brained, good-ole-boy sociopath and looney-tunes sadist. He sits down at the diner table with Bobby and Sue and seven or eight seconds later you’re saying to yourself, “Wait…an elegant lady who reads and is heading to college and knows her Jim Thompson is fucking this ape, this ruffian, this three-toed sloth whose miserable future is laid out plain as day? And what could be the bond between B.J. and Bobby, who may have grown up together but couldn’t be more unalike? I understand how high-school or small-town adolescent relationships have a way of lingering into early adulthood despite a glaring lack of shared values or spiritual rapport, but the differences between Sue and B.J. are like those between Ann Darrow and King Kong. And in this context you might as well cast Bobby as Jack Driscoll.
(l. to r.) Logan Hoffman, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Pellegrino, Jeremy Allen White.
But the film needs B.J. to be the malignant plot propellant. His drunken theft of a few thousand from his cracker boss, Giff (Mark Pellegrino), results in Giff suspecting an older Mexican fellow and beating the crap out the poor guy, etc. And all of this with B.J. standing by and bravely saying nothing. After a couple of minutes of this Bobby, who knows B.J. stole the loot, admits to taking it so the beating will stop. Giff listens, says okay and shoots the Mexican guy anyway. (Right then and there I said, “Wait a minute…this Mexican dude has no friends or family? He can just be killed like an armadillo and nobody will say boo?”) Giff asks Bobby to return the money and Bobby, knowing that B.J. has blown it all, admits to the same. It’s nonsensical that a relatively sane and smart guy like Bobby would take the rap for this hulking cretin with a 1965 Dave Clark Five haircut, but that’s the story and we’re stuck with it.
In any event the way to straighten things out, says Giff, is to steal several thousand bucks belonging to Big Red (Devane), a big-time criminal who has his ill-gotten cash dropped off at the local cotton mill, laundered and picked up a week later. B.J., Bobby and Sue commit to ripping off the dough as it’s the only way to get Giff off Bobby’s back. But then Bobby and Sue have second thoughts and a few hours later Bobby tries to confess all to the local sheriff (Jon Gries) but…you don’t wanna know. At this point it gets really far-fetched and I just stopped believing in the tale. But the dialogue and the vibe and the smart-guys-having-a-good-wallow-with-Jim-Thompson-material kept me intrigued, or at least semi-intrigued.
I’m not fully persuaded that the Hawkins brothers are the new Coen brothers, but there are signs and indications that they might be. Or at least that they might be Joel and Ethan’s almost-as-good cousins or next-door neighbors or whatever. It’ll help if their future films aren’t as genre-wallowing as this one, but they’re basically clever, inventive guys who know from quality screenplays and believe in atypical characters and reformulating classic 20th Century material. And another tip of the hat to Mr. Southern (who has reportedly written a female Expandables script, which sounds to me like a questionable move) and to producers Justin Duprie and Brian Udovich, who, I’m told, originated the idea and “found” the screenwriter (what, by the side of the road?).