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NEW YORK — Writer-director David Pomes trains an unblinking gaze on the scourge of crystal meth afflicting rural America in the grim indie drama Cook County. While it was completed before Winter’s Bone, Pomes’ first feature suffers by comparison with the robust literary backbone and powerfully driven central character of that Sundance discovery. But its raw performances and dirty-realist immersion in a harsh environment keep Cook County engrossing.
Main setting is deep in the woods of East Texas, where 17-year-old Abe (Ryan Donowho) lives with his permanently fried, meth-dealing Uncle Bump (Anson Mount, seen lately in AMC’s Hell on Wheels) and his even-further-gone grandfather (Tommy Townsend), whose lucid moments seem like ancient history.
Their isolated house is dilapidated and the kitchen no longer fit for cooking anything but meth. But Bump is a self-aggrandizing blowhard who perceives himself as Paul Revere, heroically delivering truth to the people. No matter that his 6-year-old daughter, Deandra (Mekenna Fitzsimmons), is going hungry and being exposed to a constant parade of human crud.
While Abe has in the past enjoyed the oblivion his uncle’s freely shared rock can provide, the boy’s protectiveness toward Deandra causes friction between them. That rift widens when Abe’s father Sonny (Xander Berkeley) returns from a prison stint, determined to stay clean, and to repair his relationship with his son.
The story is one of almost unrelenting blight, with Bump growing more menacing as his drug-fueled life becomes threatened. Pomes brings sharp observational skills to the erratic behavior of addicts in scenes such as Bump and his flaky girlfriend (Polly Cole) losing the thread while contemplating a trip to Vegas to get married. Often seen through Abe’s eyes as he watches from the door to the kids’ bedroom, the meth parties are especially vivid in their toxic sleaze.
Shooting in textured Super 16mm, Brad Rushing uses handheld camera in all but a handful of Houston interludes, adding to the jitteriness of an atmosphere pregnant with paranoia and simmering violence. Pomes endows the film with a tangible sense of place, heightening the contrast between the quiet woodsy locations and the claustrophobic squalor of Bump’s home. And the soured flavor of small-town life is captured in uneasy scenes in which Abe or Bump’s other flunkies are sent to the store for cooking supplies.
The cast is solid. Donowho balances anger and vulnerability. Berkeley keeps Sonny’s agenda sufficiently clouded to maintain tension. And Mount’s sinewy Bump is chillingly persuasive as a man whose only loyalty is to his addiction, even if the performance is not without hints of actorish self-indulgence.
The story’s ugly climactic developments probably represent credible choices for these characters, but they push an already bruising film into even more sordid territory. Despite the final glimmers of hope and deliverance, you wonder who the audience for this will be. That question might also explain why, after a string of prize-winning festival showings in 2008, the movie has taken so long to reach theaters.
Opens: Dec. 16 (Hannover House)
Production companies: Greenwood Films, Red Noses Productions
Cast: Anson Mount, Xander Berkeley, Ryan Donowho, Polly Cook, Rutherford Craven, Mekenna Fitzsimmons, Tommy Townsend
Director/screenwriter: David Pomes
Producers: David Pomes, Thomas Bickham, Anson Mount, Xander Berkeley, Ryan Donowho, Emily Gerson Saines
Executive producers: Rod Lurie, Michael Whalen, Rigo Fernandez
Director of photography: Brad Rushing
Production designer: James Fowler
Costume designer: Mirin Soliz
Music: Scott Szabo
Editor: Branan Edgens
Rated R, 93 minutes
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