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SAN SEBASTIAN — Confidence is the name of the game in Silver Tongues, the quietly unsettling and promising debut from Simon Arthur, a Scottish writer/director based in New York. Adapting and expanding on his U.K.-set 2007 short of the same name, Arthur here crafts a smart example of American independent cinema, one that took the audience award when premiering at Slamdance in January. Its festival life could pick up a little belated speed after its European bow at San Sebastian. While the film may be too slight to warrant domestic theatrical exposure, DVD, TV and VOD beckon for a production that’s much less about striking visuals than debate-provoking ideas and strong performances.
On the latter front, Enid Grahamturns in exceptional work as a character identified in the closing credits as ‘Joan.’ But with a picture as slippery as Silver Tongues, such information can’t be taken as gospel. Indeed, our inability to know the true nature of the relationship between Joan and the main male protagonist ‘Gerry’ (Lee Tergesen) is a key source of interest and even suspense.
We first encounter this fortyish duo through the eyes of a younger couple, Alex (Tate Ellington) and Rachel (Emily Meade), honeymooners with whom they inadvertently end up sharing a hotel dinner table. That isn’t all the foursome end up sharing. Gerry and Joan manipulate their way into their new friends’ bedroom for what we — and they — presume will be some kind of swinger-type sexual shenanigans.
In fact, Gerry and Joan pass their time traveling around anonymous corners of New England, conducting various kinds of confidence tricks. (The picture was mainly shot around Mamaroneck and Hastings-on-Hudson in upstate New York.) Their aim does not involve securing any kind of financial advantage. Instead, the pair are role-playing sociopaths, who pass through others’ lives, shaking them up for reasons that can’t quite be explained by sheer malignity.
Arthur structures the screenplay around four key episodes. First comes the Alex and Rachel encounter.Then a visit to a church where the flock are all too easily deceived into believing the pastor to be a thief. After an excursion to a retirement home comes a visit to a bleak forest where the abusive Gerry’s rough sexual advances seem to yield lethal consequences for Joan, who by this stage has emerged less as conniving co-conspirator than hapless victim/prisoner of a genuine psychopath. A couple of final twists, however, complicate the picture even further.
These later developments will certainly get audiences pondering and talking, even though they veer from the organically plausible towards the territory of manipulative scriptwriting contrivance. That Silver Tongues remains consistently engaging and absorbing is due in no small part to Graham and Tergesen, who make the most of roles that provide much scope for challenging performances-within-performances. Supporting parts are more functionally filled, giving proceedings a talky feel at times, not helped by Josh Silfen’s distracting, dark-toned digital cinematography. Then again, Silver Tongues isn’t a film that ever tries to be especially palatable. Its cynicism is of an unusually bitter, even nihilistic flavor, in the vein of early Neil Labute. This leaves an intriguing, memorable but naggingly unpleasant aftertaste.
Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival
Production company: Stick! Films
Cast: Enid Graham, Lee Tergesen, Tate Ellington, Emily Meade, Harvey Evans
Director/screenwriter/editor: Simon Arthur
Producers: Jared Moshe, Leda Nornang
Director of photography: Josh Silfen
Production designers: Kaet McAnneny, Brian Rzepka
Costume designer: Astrid Brucker
Music: Ennis Rotthoff
Sales: Stick! Films, New York
No rating, 87 minutes
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