Director Mario Van Peebles has laid down a sobering, juicy film from the sharp pickings of screenwriters Simpson and George Richards.
In this Deep South odyssey, the smart oddity is that the lead duo plays against the stereotypical grain: Duncan is Augie, a Shakespeare-quoting, teetotalingcq black man who digs country, while Simpson plays a womanizing, hard-drinking white man who reveres the blues. They both have skeletons in their closets and crippling demons to purge.
Back-roading toward Alabama in Augie’s cherished pick-up named Charlene, they indulge in the roadside distractions — juke joints, blues shacks and country bars — where they banter and argue over their differing musical tastes. Their bonding is not always harmonious, but it rings as true and, ultimately, as chilling as a slide guitar slithering on top of a conflicted lyric.
Both performances are pitch perfect. With his bassovoice, intimidating glare and toothy smile, the giant-sized Duncan casts a mesmerizing presence. Remarkably, he invests his daunting physicality with a deep-carved vulnerability. Similarly, Simpson, with his scrawny frame and shifting glances, revels in the hard-ingrained darkness that has crippled his life. And in a sobering turn as a honky-tonk owner, Tom Skerritt rims clear-eyed perspective culled from personal woe into the story refrain.
Van Peebles’ storytelling is supple, brilliantly augmented by the sure-handed editing of Mark Conte, who blends the narrative into the textures and cadences of the film’s music. Composer Tree Adams, who wrote many of the blues songs within his vibrant score, is truly a one-man musical wonder.
Other tech credits resound with grace and clarity, most notably director of photography Matthew Irving’s tight framings and grand-hued panoramas, indicative of this plucky, moving film.
Venue: Chicago International Film Festival
Production companies: Heavy Duty Entertainment, Liberty Road Entertainment, MVP Films
Cast: Michael Clarke Duncan, Morgan Simpson, Kiele Sanchez, Taryn Manning, Tom Skerritt
Director: Mario Van Peebles
Screenwriters: Morgan Simpson, George Richards
Producers: Jeff Balis, Rhoades Rader, Morgan Simpson
Director of photography: Matthew Irving
Production designer: Ruby Guidara
Music: Tree Adams
Costume designer: Bega Metzner
Editor: Mark Conte
No rating, 91 minutes