Friday, May 25, 2012

Review: Leach

There is a very fine and hotly debated line between horror flick and psychological thriller. I would put Leach firmly on the psychological thriller side. People give me a lot of horror flicks of all kinds to review. This is the first psychological thriller I’ve gotten though, and I’ve always kinda wondered about that. You would think that it’s a genre that would lend itself to low budget independent productions. You don’t need elaborate special effects. You don’t need elaborate sets. If you’re working with limited funds, you’d think it would be more cost effective to make a Cape Fear or Rear Window than a Dawn of the Dead or Friday the 13th. I think the reason they’re more rare is that this type of movie relies on two things, writing and acting. The writing has to be taut and suspenseful, and the performances have to be strong enough to carry the movie. Ironically, script and acting are two things indie flicks often falter on. Well folks, I have proof that it can be done, and done well. Leach is an edge of your seat thriller that features some top-notch acting and a story that had me guessing until the final moments.
The synopsis: Wes Chandler (Jim Dougherty) is an aspiring filmmaker whose chance encounter with police detective Ron Leach (Thomas J. Smith) seems like a golden opportunity at first glance: an opportunity that quickly spirals into something much more harrowing. Desperate to breathe new life into a failing movie he’s producing, Wes approaches Ron for assistance with his dying film. Ron agrees in exchange for Wes’s help with a little known project of his own. While attempting to honor his end of their deal, Wes discovers that Ron is really a depraved cop with sinister motives. Both men are willing to do whatever it takes to win a game of cat and mouse that leads to Wes’s ever increasing struggle to protect his family.
First of all, this is simply a well written movie. The problem is, I’m gonna have to be very careful and pretty vague here since I don’t want to give away a single plot detail, so bear with me. It’s too good to ruin like that. One thing I will say is that it’s not one of those movies where a character turns out not to be who you think they are. I’m glad writer/director John Taylor didn’t go that way with it. While that old chestnut can work beautifully, it’s overused in this type of flick and often it’s a bit of a cheat. It’s much more challenging for a writer to lay all of the characters cards on the table fairly early, clearly tell us their motivations and goals, and then plot an effective cat and mouse game between the two. The relationship between Wes and Ron is perfect. The difference in who has the power in each situation makes for a very realistic interplay as well as a real mystery as to how the tables can be turned.
I found myself genuinely not knowing where this movie was going quite a few times, which is refreshing. I’ve seen all of the clich├ęs a million times. That’s the sign of damn good writing. The problem with a lot of movies like this is that the twists and turns either come out of nowhere on one end of the spectrum, or you can see them coming from a mile away on the other side. Leach is the happy medium. All of the twists catch the audience off guard while still making sense…with a couple of notable exceptions. There were a couple of moments that were real head scratchers. A couple of them are logistical issues, most often having to do with how it could possibly be faster to cut through the woods on foot from a remote location than to drive. The other big issue is that the climactic moment of the flick requires us to believe that an otherwise smart, calculating character is completely unobservant, oblivious, and possibly blind. These are only a couple of missteps in an otherwise outstanding script however.
Taylor also has a firm grip on the art of the callback. Comedies have always used (and overused) this technique, but it seems to be a lost art in drama these days. What I’m talking about is when something that either happened or was said earlier in the movie is brought back up in a dramatic way after you’ve more or less forgotten about it. Once again, I’m not going to give examples, but it’s something I rarely see done well, and here it’s done perfectly. Taylor also knows just when to insert a little comedy too, as there are some very funny moments in this film. A little comedy makes the deadly seriousness of the following scenes hit harder. There are some great lines in this flick. In fact, the dialog is one of the major strengths of the film.
The two main characters are superbly written and portrayed. Wes has a rarity in movies these days, an actual character arc. At first he’s a real jerk, but he’s not evil. Just a jerk. Then he’s confronted with real evil. He’s still a jerk, but we realize that this jerk wants what everyone wants, to protect his loved ones, so we can get behind him. It’s his flaws that make him seem more like a real person and less like a stock movie hero. While he never truly becomes a good guy, he’s a regular dude stuck in a horrific situation, and he can’t trust the authorities to make it better. Most of us can relate to that one way or another. Jim Dougherty is excellent. He gives this character such humanity that, despite the douchebaggery we see from him at times, we can still root for him. As he struggles with what to do next, we can read his inner turmoil and his concern for his family in his eyes and all over his face. He has a great everyman quality. He’s not a badass, he’s a regular guy who has been pushed to his limits. He’s scared, and Dougherty has the good sense and the balls to play it that way when the temptation would be to go tough guy with it. It’s a lot more effective the way he did it.
On the other side of the coin is Thomas J Smith as Ron Leach. My god is this guy sleazy. It might as well be dripping off of him. Thomas, don’t take this personally, but you are a magnificent scumbag. That performance made my skin crawl. Bravo. I already don’t like cops much, but a slimeball like this wielding the power of the system is way scarier than any zombie, vampire, slasher, or monster you can throw at me. People like this actually exist. The only drawback is that maybe Thomas did just a little too good of a job. I can’t imagine Ron going anywhere and talking to anyone without giving them the creeps. A little more of a difference between “in public” Ron and “full on evil” Ron might have been nice. Then maybe Ron’s wife’s trusting and flirtatious reaction to him would have been more believable. Actually, I’ve seen women fall for WAY less veiled bullshit before, so nevermind. She was a little too bitchy to be all that sympathetic anyway. Even better than the fact that Dougherty and Smith are so good on their own is how good their onscreen chemistry is. The scenes between these two are straight up electric.
Disclaimer: because I’m being vague to avoid spoilers, this paragraph is gonna sound like a much bigger deal than it actually is. One thing that I could see being a little controversial is the film’s treatment of children. Without giving anything away, children are harmed in this story. Nothing is actually shown, but some things do happen that indicate that these children are going to be harmed. A lot of movies are squeamish about that kind of stuff. People are weird about kids getting hurt onscreen. Don’t get the wrong idea, we’re not talking Serbian Film here or anything, but some parents might have been reluctant to let their kids be involved. It’s fairly intense. There are people, even though it’s obvious that nothing bad happened to these young actors and actresses, who would say these things shouldn’t be done. I say precisely the opposite. These scenes add some extra punch to the proceedings, and really ramp up the stakes. Well done. I applaud the bravery of these young actors and the filmmakers for going there without actually going there.
Random Thought #1 – Where the hell did they film the jail scenes? It looks like a freakin’ medieval dungeon. Jeez, remind me never to jaywalk in Indiana!
Random Thought #2 – I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the shaky, bouncy shot of Wes and his daughter coming out of the school looked awful. The rest of the flick looked so good that, unfortunately, that one shot stood out.
Random Thought #3 – POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT – I was surprised to see an actual car crash in a flick that reportedly cost $20,000. That added a LOT of production value. Good call.
Random Thought #4 – It doesn’t matter what day or time, if someone walks into a church to pray or talk to the preacher in any movie, someone is there playing the organ. Do churches just pay someone to play 24/7 just in case?
Random Thought #5 – The last shot of the film is brilliant!
Leach is something you don’t normally see in independent film, a well written, well directed, and extremely well acted thriller that puts the screws to the viewer and never stops tightening them. It’s genuinely suspenseful in a…dare I say it…Hitchcockian way. In fact, the plot kinda reminds me of a variation on Strangers on a Train. I can’t overstate how well crafted this story is (aside from a handful of major logic jumps), or how talented the two leads are. Leach definitely does not suck. Oh come on, I couldn’t resist that one. THIS is the film’s website by the way. One and a half severed thumbs up. Nathan says check it out.

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