'The Barber': AFM Review
This low-budget serial-killer thriller benefits from narrative and stylistic efficiency without sacrificing production quality
California’s Chapman University ventures into film production with The Barber, a twisty thriller produced by Chapman Filmed Entertainment, a spinoff from the school’s Dodge College of Film & Media Arts, which places Dodge alumni, students and select industry professionals in key creative and support positions to produce micro-budgeted independent films. Both director Basel Owies and producer Travis Knox are Dodge graduates and if this notable feature is any indication of what to expect from the new initiative, Chapman may have hit on a winning formula.
A determined focus on tight plotting and engaging character development not only helps keep the budget in check, but also necessitates an economy of style that heightens the impact of the film’s numerous plot twists, although the narrative begins conventionally enough, as a suspected serial killer terrorizes the Chicago area in the late 90s with 17 murders of young women. Police detective Thomas McCormack (Thomas Calabro) finally gets a break in his investigation with the arrest of suspect Francis Visser (Scott Glenn), but without sufficient evidence to hold him, Visser gets released, prompting McCormack to kill himself in despair over his ability to solve the case. Twenty years later, McCormack’s son John (Chris Coy) sets out to bring the case to resolution in a completely unexpected manner. After tracking the elderly Visser to a small town where he’s working as a barber, McCormack claims to be an aspiring serial killer who’s studied all of Visser’s supposed crimes and wants to become his apprentice.
Now known as Eugene Van Wingerdt, Visser initially refuses to acknowledge his identity or his crimes, but after McCormack claims to have killed a young local woman to prove his determination, Visser warms to the idea of passing on his notorious legacy. McCormack’s volatility and sloppiness concern Visser, however, as he attempts to coach his protege to “pay attention to the details” when he’s preparing or committing a crime. McCormack’s suspicious behavior attracts the attention of the town’s police chief (Stephen Tobolowsky), however, who brings him in for questioning but has no basis to hold him.
A tipoff prompts Visser to question McCormack’s true motivations for seeking him out, just as the younger man’s certainty about his benefactor begins to waver. Their drawn-out cat and mouse strategizing will become progressively more elaborate as each tries to outmaneuver the other in a tense test of wits and wills.
Screenwriter Max Enscoe’s spoiler-susceptible script turns on a clever premise that constantly keeps the plot in flux, shifting the balance of power between Visser and McCormack, but never giving either the upper hand until the film’s conclusion. Although some of the finer details could have been more clearly articulated, the story arc presents a fundamental moral conflict, with motivations and alliances that are almost constantly in question.
The import of this underlying uncertainty relies primarily on Glenn’s substantial experience with thriller roles and his carefully nuanced performance, which is as notable for his command of tone as for the remarkable physicality he brings to the role. Coy’s wild-eyed delivery, suggesting McCormack’s constantly shifting mental state, is all the more satisfying for its misdirection, revealed in the film’s final scenes.
With his feature debut, Owies demonstrates that a degree of restraint pays off admirably, particularly with his emphasis on conventional framing and pacing (along with DP Allen Liu’s often flat, expressionless lighting), which advantageously suppresses typical genre expectations until nearly all the film’s twists have played out. Craft departments are all well represented, in particular by Brendan O’Connor’s intentionally non-threatening production design and Michael Philpot’s typically Midwestern costuming.
Production company: Chapman Filmed Entertainment
Cast: Scott Glenn, Chris Coy, Stephen Tobolowsky, Kristen Hager, Max Arciniega
Director: Basel Owies
Screenwriter: Max Enscoe
Producer: Travis Knox
Executive producers: Barbara Doyle, William J. Immerman, Brian Pitt, Adam Rosenfelt, Bob Yari
Director of photography: Allen Liu
Production designer: Brendan O’Connor
Costume designer: Michael Philpot
Editors: Nader Owies, Greg Thompson
Music: Freddy Sheinfeld
Casting: Dominika Posseren, Janelle Scuderi
Sales agent: The Little Film Company
Not Rated, 90 minutes