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TORONTO – The 1965 hit song by the Animals that supplies the title is never heard in We Gotta Get Out of This Place. But the urgency behind its lyrics about a guy and his girl fleeing toward a better life, “if it’s the last thing we ever do,” fits this Lone Star State noir to a T. In their stylish feature debut, sibling co-directors Zeke and Simon Hawkins indulge in bad-boy posturing and lurid psychopath excess. But this juicy tale of a reckless robbery and its spiraling bloody aftermath is enjoyably overripe pulp, steeped in grubby textures and flavorful atmosphere.
Screenwriter Dutch Southern has a name that sounds like an Elmore Leonard character, but his literary inspiration is hardboiled crime maestro Jim Thompson.
The late writer is namechecked early on by paperback mystery enthusiast Sue (Mackenzie Davis). She’s about to leave behind her boyfriend BJ (Logan Huffman) in their dead-end cotton mill hometown near Corpus Christi, and head off to college with BJ’s best friend Bobby (Jeremy Allen White). In an on-the-nose set-up over biscuits and gravy at the local diner, Sue quotes Thompson’s theory that there are 32 ways to write a story, but only one plot: things are not what they seem.
While BJ is a rascally hunk overflowing with testosterone, it’s one of those familiar small-town incongruities that a smart gal like Sue has stuck with such a brainless loser this long. He’s also overbearing with his more sensitive buddy, but Bobby’s motives for putting up with the jerk are clear in the doe-eyed glances he keeps shooting at Sue.
When BJ flashes a wad of cash and insists they hit the city for a farewell blowout weekend before college, Sue and Bobby comply, only later questioning where the money came from. Turns out it was stolen, along with a gun, out of the office safe of BJ’s boss at the cotton farm, Giff (Mark Pellegrino). BJ remains silent while Giff tries to kick a confession out of an innocent Mexican worker, but Bobby claims responsibility for the robbery in a bid to save the man’s life.
Ascertaining that BJ, Bobby and Sue all burned through the cash, which actually belonged to a money-laundering gangster named Big Red (William Devane), Giff scares them into pulling a heist at the mill offices to get back the $20,000 and a whole lot more. But when Bobby and Sue sleep together and BJ gets wise, the double-crosses and deceptions start stacking up.
In one sharp scene Bobby attempts to go to the cops, but gets a cryptic warning to keep his mouth shut from the corrupt sheriff (Jon Gries). There’s an encroaching sense of the dangerous underbelly of crime and violence in this sleepy town, stuck in the middle of a stark, flat landscape on which wind turbines slowly rotate but nobody seems to be going anyplace.
BJ shows no evidence of thinking through his actions, and certainly no sign of remorse for the mess he started. But the film insinuates that his malicious intent is shaped not only by jealousy over Sue and Bobby’s betrayal, but also by the corrosive awareness that unlike them, he’s not resourceful enough to find a way out of the suffocating town. He tells Sue that he knows who he is, what he wants and how to get it, but this seems more like braggadocio than real conviction.
While the dialogue is overwritten at times, the sinewy plotting in Southern’s script crackles along, gradually making it clear why Giff would put such a big-money job in the hands of three green teens despite the potential for things to go wrong. Pellegrino plays the role with such lip-smacking redneck perversity and blithe brutality that it’s almost conceivable he would do it for kicks.
When he’s not physically intimidating his pawns, Giff has a way with words that throws them off balance. He’s an over-the-top villain, and if he’s perhaps too obviously shaped by the filmmakers’ favorite movie and prose fiction, Giff is true to the inspiration of Thompson, whose killing machines weren’t exactly models of restraint.
Looking like a thicker-set, greasier Zac Efron, Huffman makes all the right moves at first. But the script pushes the loose cannon too quickly into outright villainy in a film that already has a bad guy too big for company. That also cramps the style of Devane, when Big Red turns up late in the action. White and in particular Davis register more effectively in the quieter roles. It’s Sue’s balance of surface vulnerability hiding serious smarts that makes the twistier plot turns work, even if the escalating violence of the climax almost veers into pastiche.
Whatever its flaws, the movie looks and sounds terrific. Shot on the Red Epic, the muted tones of cinematographer Jeff Bierman’s desolate widescreen vistas and grainy, inventively framed interiors give way at key points to bursts of heightened color and hot light as the characters run through plans and counterplans. And Jonathan Keevil’s score, with its moody acoustic themes and scratchy guitar picking, is an ideal musical complement to the physical settings.
It’s nowhere near the pantheon of razor-sharp neo-noirs like Carl Franklin’s One False Move, Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan or any of the excursions into neighboring territory by another pair of filmmaking brothers, the Coens. But We Gotta Get Out of This Place is lean, mean and highly watchable – a genre exercise that introduces a promising directing team who already show considerable command of their craft.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Vanguard)
Cast: Jeremy Allen White, Logan Huffman, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Pellegrino, William Devane, Jon Gries
Production company: Rough & Tumble Films
Directors: Zeke Hawkins, Simon Hawkins
Screenwriter: Dutch Southern
Producers: Justin X. Duprie, Brian Udovich
Director of photography: Jeff Bierman
Production designer: Seong-Jin Moon
Music: Jonathan Keevil
Costume designer: Autumn Rae Steed
Editor: Simon Hawkins
No rating, 91 minutes.
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