'11:55': LAFF Review

11:55 still 1- H 2016
Courtesy of LA Film Festival
An appropriately sober, if not nail-biting, debut.

Vengeance travels by Greyhound in upstate New York.

A Marine returning from war walks into a showdown with the past in 11:55, directed by Ari Issler and Ben Snyder. Set in a rough neighborhood in upstate Newburgh, N.Y., the picture translates a familiar Western scenario for a world of rival small-time drug crews. While it won't supplant its obvious (but unacknowledged) model as this generation's High Noon, the drama should earn respect at fests and marks a creditable feature debut for both the filmmakers and their leading man.

Victor Almanzar stars as Nelson Sanchez, whose homecoming day from service in Afghanistan is going well — family party, reunion with loving girlfriend Livvy (Shirley Rumierk) — until he learns that an old enemy knows he's back. Nicky Quinn (Mike Carlsen), whose brother Nelson accidentally killed years ago, is headed to town on a bus due to arrive five minutes before midnight.

Intent on keeping him out of the world he escaped by joining the military, Livvy and Nelson's sister Angie (Elizabeth Rodriguez) convince him to go with Livvy to Boston. But some of Quinn's buddies are staking out the bus station, making it clear trouble will follow wherever Nelson goes. Over the womenfolk's objections, he decides he must make a stand.

Nelson has plenty of friends here, but his calls for backup go as unheeded as those of Gary Cooper in Hadleyville. Nelson shouldn't have come back, some tell him. Over the course of eight or so hours, he exhausts all options, trying to solicit fellow vets with the help of a disabled war buddy (John Leguizamo) and even flirting with danger by asking his drug-dealing godfather to broker peace. ("It would be my great pleasure to do this for you," the man says, in Mario Puzo-ese, before finding a reason to demur.)

Despite multiple onscreen timestamps, the film doesn't generate ticking-clock tension so much as it paints a picture of dead ends and foreordained poverty. Just across the river from artsy Beacon, Newburgh has been plagued for decades by drugs and violence. (A few years ago, a group ranked it four slots behind Detroit as the tenth-most-dangerous community in the U.S.) The picture's performances, particularly those of Almanzar and Rodriguez, show what it's like to grow up in this kind of environment without the screenplay having to belabor the point.

More humor would be welcome here, and needn't have been a cop-out. In a cameo as Quinn's pregnant and angry wife, Julia Stiles earns a big laugh or two by complaining about her husband's backsliding with gangbangers. In the end, if the movie hasn't completely convinced us that facing Quinn is Nelson's only option, it does offer a satisfying recipe of novelty, action, and compassion in dealing with this mortal grudge.

Venue: LA Film Festival (U.S. Fiction Competition)
Production company: Washington Square Films
Cast: Victor Almanzar, Shirley Rumierk, Elizabeth Rodriguez, David Zayas, Mike Carlsen, Julia Stiles, John Leguizamo
Directors: Ari Issler, Ben Snyder
Screenwriters: Ari Issler, Ben Snyder, Victor Almanzar
Producers: Danny Mendoza, Joshua Blum, Gia Walsh, Kara Baker, Matthew Thurm
Executive producers: Steven J. Brown, Rick Gates, Rod Lake, Susan Leber, Erika Pearsall
Director of photography: Tim Gillis
Production designer: Akin McKenzie
Costume designer: Amanda Ford
Editor: Ray Hubley
Composer: H. Scott Salinas
Casting director: Ben Snyder

Not rated, 80 minutes