★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Tim Sutton attempts to comment on the current state of America, specifically of low-income communities in rural and forgotten parts of the country, through a microcosm: a man who signs up to participate in a cage match where the winner will walk away with $100,000. Although well-intentioned, this adaptation of Frank Bill’s novel is far from a compelling story because the screenplay fails to drill deeply into the humanity of key characters: a former Marine, a meth dealer and his accomplice, and a cop in charge of investigating drug-related murders.
Their surface characteristics are introduced in a formulaic fashion. Jarhead (Jamie Bell) may look tough and angry, but he actually cares for his drug-addicted wife and two children; Chainsaw (Frank Grillo) is psychotic and extremely violent, even to his sister Delia (Margaret Qualley) who yearns to be treated right; Sheriff Deputy Whalen (James Badge Dale) is jaded when it comes to his job—he, like Delia, struggles with loneliness and substance abuse. As you see, elements are present so that we wish to know more about the subjects. However, the picture fails to take off because the screenplay, for the most part, seems uninterested in exploring the connections among the characters as individuals facing external battles and as people who must fight their own demons in order to have the chance to come out the other side and start anew.
The approach is one-dimensional and tedious: present bleakness to the point of suffocation—perhaps then viewers will be forced to consider gravity of the topics it broaches. This strategy can be effective in the right hands but dangerous when not applied correctly. This film leans toward the latter. Drama must be mined, not just presented. A movie centering around poor, white Americans living in the Midwest must be relatable to the rich, non-white, non-Americans living in Silicon Valley. In other words, the story must be shaped and presented in a way that is accessible without sacrificing what it is about or what it wishes to say.
Even if it were successful on that level, Sutton’s film lacks urgency. The pacing is as slow as molasses, there are numerous steady shots of the sky, grass, and lonely roads, cold colors like blue and grey dominate the screen. Problems pile up but it offers no solutions. There is only violence. But even then the work offers no reprieve to the desperation and depression all around. By the end one is forced to ask the point of it all instead of arriving at a handful of insights. There is a disconnect between material and audience. It shouldn’t be this way.
It is a shame because Bell, Grillo, and Dale are the sort of performers who can communicate plenty with a glance held for one second too long. Here, they play characters who do not or cannot express themselves using words. And so their actions say a lot about them. Aside from the march to the cage fight, they are not given much to do. Once each character is given a definition, they fail to evolve. And because there’s no change, we ask why these specimens are worth putting under the microscope. I struggle to come up with an answer.