Putty Hill (2010)
★ / ★★★★
When Cory dies from heroin overdose, his family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances gather for his funeral. There is an innate sadness in “Putty Hill,” written by Jordan Mintzer and Matthew Porterfield, that attempts to go beyond the death of a teen who was hooked on drugs. In a handful of ways, the core of the film is not Cory’s death. There is a man behind the camera who asks questions that are surprisingly right to the point. Questions like “How well did you know Cory?” and “How do you feel about his death?” reveal that maybe nobody knows who the deceased really was.
Even his family has no idea. They have words but the their words make it seem like the teenager they knew was an entirely different person. The Cory they knew or clung onto did not have a drug addiction. These characters are more relatable than we might think. We, too, tend to want to remember, instead than the bad, the goodness of the person who has passed away.
The picture is also about a community desperately struggling to flourish. The camera spends a lot of time indoors. There is barely anything on the wall. It is a rarity to find books laying about. People hang out and talk about anything casual, like the weather and he-said-she-said. People communicate but in a minimal manner. They exist only to take up space. What is their purpose? What are their dreams? Do they wish to make an impact in the world?
There are two scenes, one indoors and the other outdoors, that stand out. First, there is an ex-convict who makes a living as a tattoo artist. The electric buzz hides his soft voice and it makes us pay more attention to the words he says and how he says them. Even though he has spent some time in prison for murder, he is never shown to be a violent or bad man. He is very guarded and that is enough for us to imagine what he must have gone through in the correctional facility. And yet there is a very real possibility that, if necessary, he can flip a switch inside his head and turn from a soft-spoken tattooed man to a bellicose beast.
The second involves a group of teenagers who are stopped by the local police officers in the forest. When asked if they have seen a bearded man, who robbed a bank and hurt a few people during their escape, the adolescents fail to take the questions seriously. They laugh, they are sarcastic, and they treat the situation as a joke. There is something about their apathy that made me feel rotten inside, disgusted. Is this where our youth is heading?
Unfortunately, the rest of the film is plagued with scenes that go nowhere. The karaoke during the funeral is somewhat moving but it lacks control. It should have been the strongest or most memorable scene because it is at the point where all the characters converge.
I think “Putty Hill,” directed by Matthew Porterfield, has a message it wants to say about people being a product of their environment. But it should have been more generous in excising laborious shots that come off pretentious. It feels like three quarters of the film is an act of staring into nothing. Instead of extended takes, perhaps it could have found subtler ways to highlight and invoke the hidden emotions from the people being asked by questions.
I was especially interested in Cory’s sister who feels obligated to return to Putty Hill because her brother has died. They were not close and it shows. Does she care? We wonder because when she talks about her brother, it is almost like listening to how much she finds it a chore to wash the dishes.