Cost of a Soul: Film Review

An impressive debut for film school grad Sean Kirkpatrick is marred by an excessively high body count.

Even though his debut film winds up as a study in grim nihilism, you do eagerly wait Sean Kirkpatrick’s next film.

As much as you want to celebrate the success story behind the indie movie Cost of a Soul, your final impression is that of a talented newcomer done in by artistic overreach. While Penn State film school grad Sean Kirkpatrick does a fine job in establishing a gritty inner-city milieu and a collection of more than credible street characters caught up in an endless cycle of crime and violence, his body count reaches the proportions of the worst sort of studio schlock. Going for a shock effect, he instead strains credulity and risks unintended laughs.

The film roamed the festival circuit for many months, then hit pay dirt by winning a “Big Break Movie Contest” sponsored by Rogue and AMC Theatres. Now the movie opens in 50 theaters nationwide May 20 as part of AMC Independent’s program to showcase the best indie films. That kind of push could mean more attention from critics and cineastes and a better afterlife for his first film in home entertainment.

The movie comes right at you from the start with flash and grit. The artistic flash begins from a prologue, set in Iraq, shot in black and white only for the Philadelphia-set story to unfold in shades of drab color and overexposed flesh tones to give things a noirish look. The grit comes in the horror and tension in Iraq that only escalate when two wounded vets — their psychological wounds being far graver than the physical ones — return to the same Philly slum.

Kirkpatrick moves through these early scenes with smooth confidence, cross-cutting between two stories that will eventually collide. An intense Irish-American vet Tommy (Chris Kerson) is determined to escape the clutches of the local neighborhood mob boss, Bernie (Greg Almquist, a monster’s monster), but his wife (Judy Jerome), whom he virtually abandoned to escape those mean streets, accepted too many favors from Bernie while he was away.

Same thing happens to DD Davis (Will Blagrove), an African-American who returns home with the best of intensions of launching a music career only to find his brothers are so heavily into drug-dealing as to jeopardize the entire family.

So far so good, but the violence escalates to cartoonish levels with corpses in nearly every scene during the final third of the film. There are better ways to suggest a grim cycle of violence than showing thugs blowing holes in each other in scene after scene.

Nevertheless, the young writer-director’s work with his actors shows that he is a filmmaker on the rise. Kerson is tightly wound yet so clearly affected by his growing affection for a daughter he never knew that he is a study in contrasts. His anger over having to resume “the life” feeds his killing frenzy. He knows he will pay a price eventually but never hesitates to kill.

Blagrove is equally enraged but he directs his fury at the street characters ruining his family and an older brother who gets too much of a kick out of gangsterism.

Mark Borkowski plays a gunman who accompanies Tommy in their enforcement activities but harbors nagging doubts. Jerome as Tommy’s wife, Nakia Dillard as DD’s bone-weary mom and Maddie M. Jones as Tommy’s young handicapped daughter all have moments to shine.

Reportedly shot in 18 days on the very tough streets and rowhouses of North Philadelphia, Cost of a Soulpulsates with energy and raw anger. Kirkpatrick films much of this in close shots, hemming his characters in and catching all the heat of their furious outbursts.

But eventually he takes the easy way out with all plot and character lines ending in abrupt deaths. Thus, no one even has a chance to confront his demons or find a way out of the street life. So the movie winds up as a study in grim nihilism. You do, however, eagerly wait Kirkpatrick’s next film.

Opens: Friday, May 20 (Rogue/AMC Theatres)
Production company: Cast Shadow Productions
Cast: Chris Kerson, Will Blagrove, Judy Jerome, Mark Borkowski, Gregg Almquist, Maddie M. Jones
Director/screenwriter: Sean Kirkpatrick
Producers: Sean Kirkpatrick, Jonathan Risinger, Edward J. Eberwine III
Executive producer: JP Mascaro Jr.
Director of photography: Chase Bowman
Production designer: Michael Crenshaw
Music: Rodney Whittenberg
Editor: Jonathan Risinger
Rated R, 108 minutes