Thursday, December 2, 2010

In Theaters: "Meskada"

There’s a delicate line between making a film about lifeless small towns, and making a lifeless film. Josh Sternfeld’s Meskada, for all of its good intentions and craftsmanship, can’t stay on the right side of that line. It is about the plain-spoken folks in small towns (it was shot in upstate New York), and writer/director Sternfeld takes great pains to capture the low-key interactions and deliberate rhythms of their lives. But for much of the picture, he forgets to provide a pulse.

The story begins with two men executing a simple burglary, “ten minutes,” they say, “in and out.” When we return to the scene, a child is dead—an unexpected casualty of a robbery that went horribly wrong. Noah Cordin (Nick Stahl) is the lead detective on the investigation, partnered up with Leslie Spencer (Rachel Nichols) from the state police. Their investigation soon points them toward Cordin’s hometown, on the other side of the county and the figurative other side of the tracks. That’s when things start to get sticky; the mother of the slain child is a powerful county official, and the town that may be harboring the fugitives is pushing to put its population back to work at a new factory that requires the grieving mother’s approval.

The representation of drab, small-time life is faithful—to a fault, perhaps. The woe-is-me dialogue is unfortunate (“You ever think about what’s out there? Life?”), and the staging is colorless; in attempting to pump up the realism, he’s taken the air out of the picture. I’m all for a good small-town slice of life (like the brilliant 1997 effort Eye of God, also starring Stahl), but this pacing is brutal. Sternfeld humps away for too long at the same tempo—it only picks up at the unexpected intersection of crime and politics, and it takes all of the yelling and window-smashing of the inter-town conflict scenes to jolt us out of our stupor.

Sternfeld does, it should be noted, have a strong visual sense, and crafts some interesting sequences, in particular a scene that cross-cuts the pursuit of a suspect with a shock death. He also gets some credible performances out of his actors—though not from Nichols (last seen in, ugh, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), who completely unconvincing as the tough state cop. However, Stahl is terrific—he’s a sturdy, grounded presence, lending the film a real sense of conscience—and Norman Reedus (from Boondock Saints) is arresting as a working guy with a short fuse. Smaller roles are also well-filled (Kerry Biché, so good in fellow Tribeca film Nice Guy Johnny, makes a brief but effective appearance).

But the picture feels strangely slight and incomplete, its attempt at a Chinatown ending landing with a thud. Meskada is not a bad film (okay, the scene with the mother screeching at the town hall meeting is pretty bad), but it is an insubstantial one; there’s not much to it besides mood and Stahl’s muscular performance. It’s so muted and deliberate, it never really gets going.

I reviewed "Meskada" at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. It opens Friday, December 3rd in New York and L.A. 

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