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Entries in Low [2011] (1)

Friday
Jul272012

Low (2011)

Fate Crimes

My heart jumped when I looked at the estimated budget for Ross Shepherd's new film, Low. Based on the stunning photography, solid performances, and slick overall package the director put together, I assumed I'd missed a huge news story about America plunging into irreversible economic decline. Surely, a thousand British pounds must equal something like a hundred thousand U.S. dollars, right? Nope. It's more like fifteen-hundred.

In an age of dumb, inexcusably expensive studio pictures, independent movies are becoming film lovers' last refuge for intelligent escapism. As Shepherd demonstrates here, all one needs to create a gripping entertainment experience is drive, a game skeleton crew, and a little bit of start-up money (plus a cool story idea, of course). While far from a perfect movie, Low lit up my brain and rattled my nerves more than most of the mainstream junk I've seen this year.

The film centers on Alice (Amy Comper), a young woman who's ventured into some private woods to bury a small wooden box. She's solemn, but suspiciously anxious to get the hell out of there. On the way back to civilization, she catches the eye of Edward (David Keyes), an odd-looking guy who she sees hurriedly climbing over a series of barbed-wire fences along the property line. He pursues her with a steady walk that becomes a run.

Edward catches up with Alice, and soon traps her in an awkward lie about how she wasn't awkwardly running away from him. The two walk farther, making tense small talk before bumping into the landowner, a jovial but cautious old man named Graham (Stewart Tighe). In the moment, it becomes very important to Edward to make it seem like he and Alice are together, and not just casual acquaintances. Graham isn't so sure, but he leaves them be. Alone again, Edward coaxes Alice into following him to a nearby bluff, where he has something very special to show her.

That "something" is the first of many surprises Low has to offer, which I wouldn't dare spoil. Shepherd and screenwriter Jamie Tighe explore a wealth of themes here, including the dangers of politeness in the social contract; patterns of relationship abuse; and a fascinating implication of a cosmic, guiding hand that's far from the benevolent God these characters may or may not believe in.

Bits of Alice and Edward's back stories trickle in, changing not only what we know of these characters, but also how we feel about them. In some cases, those feelings double-back on themselves as more of the onion is peeled away. The film is strongest when it focuses on their conversations, which begin with Alice having the upper hand, due to the superficial contrast of her "normalcy" to Edward's "strangeness". Gradually, the balance shifts as Alice's frailties and secrets become fodder for her tormentor. I can't prove this, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the filmmakers were heavily inspired by Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh's dinner scene in Psycho.

My only two complaints with the film are its climax and music editing. The screenplay's back end needs some serious de-cluttering. After fifty engrossing minutes of slow-burn, the last ten feel at once rushed and weighed down by a lot of unnecessary business. Again, I'm tiptoeing around the details here, but there's gunplay, a car chase, and multiple endings that could have easily been traded up for a subtler emotional confrontation. The other solution would have been to extend the run-time to feature-length, thus giving some of the more sensational elements room to breathe. As it stands, Low's home stretch plays like a season of 24: it's hard not to look back at all the crazy events and coincidences without tittering.**

As for the music, composer Scott Mungin does a really nice job, but the film could use a bit more variety. Some of the themes feel awkwardly recycled, and it's here that the production's "micro-budget" nature really seeps into the viewing experience. Chase scenes shouldn't necessarily be accompanied by the same dulcet tones as establishing shots of the peaceful forest. That's my recollection, anyway.

These are minor issues, though, and should in no way deter you from watching Low. In a creepily unhinged yet strangely sympathetic performance, Keyes sells Edward's evolution from fate's whipping boy to fate's messenger (and back again). And Comper is a revelation. Sure, she looks like Noomi Rapace's hotter, younger sister, but she's also a hell of an actress (in my experience, you get beauty or a great performance out of indie film performers--rarely both, and never to this degree). Even as the screenplay begins to run off the rails, the leads stay committed and play for keeps.

I can't stress enough how excited I am about Shepherd and Tighes' achievement. Like another one of my favorite films this year, Dead Weight, Low proves that one doesn't need connections or millions of dollars to create art that rivals the quality of major motion pictures. This is an early step for these filmmakers, and I believe they'll get the polish they need in time.*** Their talent, frugality, and ambition have officially put everyone with moviemaking aspirations on notice: mediocrity is no longer an option.

Note: As of this writing, Low is seeking distribution--which means you can't see it yet. It has an IMDb page, where you can watch the trailer and follow developments as they happen. I'll also keep an eye on things, and let you know when and how you can see this really cool little movie.

*The Dark Knight Rises cost a quarter of a billion dollars to make.

**Perfect example: You know that horror movie "thing" where the damsel in distress runs from an attacker through the woods and trips on something at precisely the wrong moment? That happens to Alice three times in the course of sixty minutes.

***Unsolicited Tip from an Armchair Filmmaker: slow-motion chases can look really cool or they can come off as water ballet. Before employing suspense's ultimate make-or-break device, be sure it's A) necessary and B) effective.