'Two Step': Film Review

Erynn Patrick/Traverse Media
Makes most Hollywood thrillers seem ham-fisted by comparison.

Alex R. Johnson's Texas-set neo-noir thriller concerns a young man who becomes entangled with a murderous grifter.

Most contemporary thrillers are so intent on providing high-octane action that plot development and nuanced characterizations fall by the wayside. That's not the case with Alex R. Johnson's Texas-set neo-noir, which begins slowly and surely before ratcheting up the tension to terrific effect. While this low-budget indie featuring no familiar names will have a hard time attracting audiences in its limited theatrical release, Two Step is guaranteed to have a long shelf life and portends a bright future for its talented writer-director.

Set in the sort of dusty, non-descript Texas small town that its inhabitants never seem to escape (the film was shot in Austin), the story begins with recent college graduate James (Skyy Moore) arriving to visit his sole living relative, an elderly grandmother who promptly passes away. Bequeathed her modest home and the not inconsiderable sum of $85,000, James prepares to settle in for a while, buying a snappy used car and striking up a friendship with his neighbor Dot (a terrific Beth Broderick), a straight-talking multiple divorcee and local dance instructor.

When James hears a mysterious phone message left for his grandmother, he grows suspicious and discovers multiple withdrawals from her bank account. It turns out to be a scam perpetrated by Webb (James Landry Hébert), a low-life grifter who cons elderly people by pretending to be their grandson in desperate need of money.

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James resolves to find the culprit but before he can do so, Webb, newly released from prison, unexpectedly shows up at his front door. Attempting to persuade him that the old lady is out and will return later, James suddenly finds himself brutally beaten, gagged and bound, with Webb hell-bent on procuring the rest of the money.

Other characters figuring in the darkly tinged proceedings are Webb's former girlfriend Amy (Ashley Rae Spillers), a victim of his physical abuse who's absconded with his ill-gotten gains; and Duane (Jason Douglas), the local small-time crime boss who would like nothing more than for Webb to leave town.

Slowly easing into the plot machinations — the first half of the film is essentially a character study, with a particular emphasis on the tender relationship that develops between Dot and James — the filmmaker eventually lets it rip as the body count rises and the violent proceedings deliver an almost unbearable tension.

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Much of the credit for the film's effectiveness must also go to Hébert, delivering a riveting performance as the psychopathic killer with surprising vulnerability, especially in his charged interactions with his former boss Duane, who treats him with undisguised contempt. It's a showy role, to be sure, and the intense, sinewy actor makes the most of it.

Besides his sure gift for incisive characterizations and acerbically witty dialogue, Johnson also displays a strong visual sense, with the film shot and edited for maximum effect. Two Step — the title refers to both the dance Dot teaches and the tense interactions between various pairs of characters — arrives as an unexpected modest gem.

Production: La Chima Films
Cast: Beth Broderick, James Landry Hébert, Skyy Moore, Jason Douglas, Ashley Rae Spillers
Director/screenwriter: Alex R. Johnson
Producers: Alex R. Johnson, Paul Biedrzycki, Pat Cassidy, Charles Mulford
Director of photography: Andy Lilien
Production designer: Claire M. White
Editor: Benjamin Moses Smith
Costume designer: Rachel Marie Jones
Composer: Andrew Kenny
Casting: Beth Sepko

Not rated, 93 minutes

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