Have you ever seen a movie and wondered how it was pitched or what the Initial production meetings looked like? In the case of South of Heaven, I can see it as clear as day. This probably didn’t happen, but it’s my review, so I get to imagine it the way I want to, dammit. Picture, if you will, a bird’s eye view of a table in the middle of a room dimly lit by a single naked light bulb above the table. Half empty whiskey bottles litter the table, and cigarettes smolder in ashtrays. As we pull in to see people sitting around the table, the sounds of arguing grow louder. One man says, “We should make a comic book movie!” Another retorts, “No, we should make a neo-noir crime flick.” Yet another interjects, “I say we make a western!” Someone else pipes up “But I want to make a black comedy.” We cut to a POV shot from the head of the table as everyone continues to argue, talking at once. Over the din of the spirited discussion, someone clears their throat. Everyone falls silent and looks toward the camera. A man sits back in a chair, his features hidden in the shadows. “Gentlemen…” he says as he leans forward, revealing writer/director J.L. Vara, “…why don’t we just make them all?” One of the other men looks panicked and says “But we only have the money to make one movie!” An extreme close up of Vara’s mouth reveals a sly grin crossing his lips as he says “I know.”
Synopsis: When Roy Coop finished his stint in the Navy, he only had two things on his mind: seeing his brother Dale, and writing the great American novel. What he gets, however, is the homecoming from Hell! A pair of violent vaudevillians (NAPOLEON DYNAMITE’s Jon Gries, and Thomas Jay Ryan) mistake Roy for his brother, looking to collect on a debt he didn’t know he owed. Eight fingers later, Roy is burnt to a crisp, forged by fire into a new man. Roy is dead. Nobody is born. Now it’s Nobody’s turn to have his wicked revenge, and to save his brother before it’s too late. Wrapped in bandages and ready for blood, Nobody is determined to kill those that get in his way, even the murdering masochist named Mad Dog Mantee (Shea Whigham, MACHETE and HBO’s BOARDWALK EMPIRE). Dodging bullets and dodging dames, Nobody meets the nasty ne’er-do-wells Lily (Diora Baird, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING) and Veronica (Elina Lowensohn, SCHINDLER’S LIST). In this wonderful neo-film-noir, violence and vengeance are sure to meet in a little town they call… South of Heaven.
There are three things that make South of Heaven something special. The first one, which will reach out and grab you immediately, is the visual style. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s like a comic/noir/western/euro/kids book. One of the major factors that played in to the great look of the film is that it was shot on 35mm film. It has a warm, textured, film look that is so much better than digital. The main reason the flick has such a unique look, however, is that everything is manufactured on set and in camera. There is no CGI and no green screen. It’s all painted backdrops and rear projection and practical effects. The colors are vibrant, and the animated sequences are great. The comic book look reminded me a bit of Dick Tracy. The lush palate serves as a nice counter point to the sometimes very dark, violent story.
The set design deserves special mention. The house we spend the first portion of the film in is gorgeous. It has a black and white motif, bringing the noir aspects to mind, but strangely Lina Romay would not look out of place at all lounging around naked on that set in a 70’s Jess Franco Eurosleaze film. There are no actual exteriors in the film, all of the outside shots are shot on a sound stage. The painted desert (pun intended) backdrop to the outdoor shots at Mad Dog’s hideout and the town of South of Heaven smacks of the Loony Tunes desert populated by Wiley Coyote and the Roadrunner. The interiors of the cabin where most of the action in the second half takes place would look equally at home in a horror flick as it would a western. These sets never look realistic, lending the movie a dreamlike quality that makes it truly unique. It kinda feels like someone painted bold watercolors in a coloring book and set a demented little movie in it.
The second thing, and the one that absolutely blew me away in this movie is the acting. The casting is perfect, particularly the centerpiece of the movie, Shea Wigham. Holy shit he is amazing in this flick. I mean, this is award worthy acting. I was only previously familiar with him from Boardwalk Empire. No, I haven’t seen Wristcutters, yes I know I should, and no you’re not the first person to tell me that, so give it a rest. Anyway, he positively owns the screen every moment he is on it. Mark my words, once Shea breaks into the upper echelon of the acting business where he belongs, this will be that early indie gem of his that people go back, discover, rave about, and try to claim that they saw it and recognized his talent “before the mainstream did”; so catch this flick now before the hipsters discover it in a couple of years.
The supporting cast is phenomenal too. The brothers Nee are good as the brothers Coop. Jon Gries and Thomas Jay Ryan are hilarious as a pair of Vaudevillian villains. I mean hilarious. I would love to see them as recurring characters in other movies. The beautiful Diora Baird (Night of the Demons remake, Stan Helsing, etc.) gives the best performance of her career, and Elina Lowensohn is pitch perfect as the classic film fatale vamp. I was ecstatic to see Joe Unger, best known as Tinker from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3, show up. He’s always a welcome addition. Hell, we even get a cameo from none other than George “The Animal” Steele.
The third thing is the screenplay. As good as J.L. Vara is as a director, I think his true gift is his writing. His script is almost as much of the star of this flick as Whigham is. The dialog is simply genius. It’s on par with any dialog Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith has ever written. I know that’s a heavy statement, but it’s true. At times it almost seems to have been written for the stage. There’s one speech that Mad Dog gives about a dancing chicken that is absolutely one of the best soliloquies I’ve seen in a movie since…well, ever. Like I said, the actors do a bang up job, but a significant amount of the credit for the success of the characters has to go to the masterful writing.
There are a couple of missteps in the flick, though. Some of the makeup, particularly the prosthetics in the early attacks on Nothing, look great. Some of the makeup, however, looks terrible. I can understand that possibly being a budgetary issue, but I’ve seen better burned faces done with stuff from Party City. Near the end of the movie there’s a section where Mad Dog leaves Dale and Lily alone in the cabin for a while, and these scenes drag, causing some real pacing issues. Cutting them by a couple of minutes would have helped immensely. Then again, Mad Dog is such a great character and Whigham is such a great actor that maybe it’s just his abrupt absence that these scenes suffer from. There was also one directorial choice I didn’t dig. There are references to 80’s music spread throughout the movie. Early on in South of Heaven there is a stylized instrumental version of a song by The Cure used. From there on, I was listening to the score and trying to catch other songs. The problem is, there aren’t any as far as the score goes. The characters sing the other songs. I found it distracting to play name that tune with the score without there being a payoff. I would have used the Cure song later in the flick, but maybe that’s just me.
As usual, Synapse gives us a nice DVD package. We’ve got a nice transfer of the movie. I can’t speak for the Blu-ray, but the DVD preserves the great look of the 35mm film. As far as the special features, we’ve got not one, not two, but THREE commentaries; one with the filmmakers, one with the cast, and one with some critics. We also get three of Vara’s short films; Miserable Orphan, Azole Dkmuntch, and A Boy And His Fetus. They’re all entertaining on their own and show the progression towards the skill he would show in the feature.
Random Thought: There’s one scene that, when I saw it, I wondered if it was an homage to a 1978 flick that I love called Blue Sunshine. On the commentary, Vara confirms that it was. I like him even more now.
I go back and forth from wondering what these guys could have done with a budget and being glad they didn’t have one. Half of me would love to see what these filmmakers and their stylistic sensibilities would have done with a couple million dollars. However, I think a lot of the film’s look that I enjoyed so much was a product of the inventiveness and ingenuity that comes with having to stretch $4000 enough to make a whole movie. Yes, I said $4,000. No, I didn’t forget any zeroes.South of Heaven is exactly what I’m looking for when I pop in a no budget indie flick; something that can’t afford to show me what Hollywood can, so instead they show me something I’ve never seen before, which I would rather see any day. To call South of Heaven quirky would be like calling Gary Busey slightly eccentric, but it doesn’t try to get along on that quality alone. It’s well made and amazingly written. What I wanna know is how something like this takes four years to get distribution (it was made in 2008) but crap like Chernobyl Diaries goes from idea to screen in a year. In other words, this flick is a clear illustration of what’s right with indie filmmaking today and what’s wrong with Hollywood. One and a half severed thumbs up. Nathan says check it out. Ok, I was a good boy and resisted all during the review, but I can’t hold it back anymore… Before you see the light, you must diiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeee!