As far as crime movies go, things are feeling a little “been there, stole that.” These days it seems rare that a thriller will genuinely surprise you and offer thrills beyond what you can find on any number of hour-long prime time dramas. (Would anyone going to pick “Alex Cross” over “True Detective?”) But “Two Step,” a small and quietly affecting thriller set in the dusty nooks and crannies of Austin, Texas, somehow manages to achieve such a feat.
“Two Step” is definitely a slow burn, but it announces its intentions early and settles into a definitive mood and tempo, and when the sudden bursts of violence do arrive (and they do), they are accompanied by an unexpected power. James (Skyy Moore) is a troubled kid whose parents have passed away and who has just gotten expelled from college. He goes to Austin to live with his elderly grandmother, but almost as soon as he gets to her house, she passes away. She leaves the house to him but that also comes with another set of complications in the form of small time crook Webb (James Landry Herbert).
Webb is a low level goon who, from the comfort of his prison cell, has been scamming elderly people out of their retirement money. The scene is simple: he looks up people in the phone book who seem to be in their golden years and then calls pretending to be one of their long lost grandchildren. Webb has just been released and scorned by his former girlfriend (Ashley Rae Spillers), who also took off with a sizable chunk of the money he had squirreled away, leaving him heavily indebted to a local crime boss Duane (Jason Douglas).
For a while the movie operates on two parallel paths: on one path, James deals with his grandmother’s estate and strikes up an unusual friendship with Dot (Beth Broderick), a former ballerina and neighbor of James’ grandmother, while on the other Webb bumbles around town, getting into minor skirmishes while he tries to come up with the money to placate Duane. What makes the movie so unusual is that these two narrative threads don’t intersect until way late in the movie, when the two storylines have been firmly established. You know that they will intersect, of course, and that things will become pretty uncomfortable when they do, but as separate entities they are so engrossing that the whole movie could be structured like this, in compartmentalized halves, and it would still be a success.
Of course, the two threads do come together, when Webb just shows up at James’ grandmother’s house. Then things take a turn for the worse. It’s difficult to talk about this turn without giving the movie away, but if the movie was a domestic drama for the James stuff and a southern fried thriller with the Webb stuff, then the thriller takes over and goes considerably deeper and darker. It’s not explicit, exactly, but there are sudden bursts of violence that will probably catch you off guard and make your heart beat a little faster.
The turn will likely alienate some viewers who were perfectly happy with the two separate storylines, especially since the stuff with James and Dot is so unassuming and weird. It’s a relationship that is clearly a friendship but it also has an unspoken erotic edge. James has had a tough line, with a sadness that is etched into his young face, but Dot doesn’t seem to pity him. She treats him as an equal and together the two learn from one another (she, of course, is damaged goods but seems to look out for herself appropriately, even when fooling around with a married law man). The James/Dot relationship is the heart of “Two Step” (named because Dot is a former ballerina who now does line dancing classes) and when the movie shifts into the shadows, a lot of that heart is lost. It at first seems like a catastrophic miscalculation; like the filmmakers weren’t confident in what they were crafting so they decided to make it another movie altogether. But that’s not it. Not quite. The movie, much like the titular dance move, just changes direction.
But that’s not to say that the movie stops being riveting; it just becomes riveting in a different, pulpier way. Writer/director Alex R. Johnson is clearly a fan of legendary Texas writer Joe R. Lansdale, who has a similar fascination with mixing oversized violence with the relative smallness of Texas life. Johnson has assumed a wonderful cast of characters who inhabit their roles completely and naturally, with a few of them (including Douglas) inhabiting their roles so fully that they don’t seem to be acting at all. The dialogue has a homespun naturalism that only occasionally bubbles over into hard-boiled cliche (this is also helped by the beautiful, deep-focus photography of cinematographer Andy Lilien). It’s a testament to the authenticity of the movie that anyone from Texas can look at almost all of the characters in “Two Step” and identify them immediately as someone from their own lives. It’s that real.
It’s also lovely to see a deliberately paced crime movie set in Texas that doesn’t borrow wholesale from Terrence Malick‘s “Badlands.” Johnson is interested in character; otherwise he wouldn’t have entire sequences that consist of two people talking about the emotional wreckage of their respective pasts. But unlike the slew of imitators who followed Malick’s crime world masterpiece, Johnson is just as interested in plot – in the mechanics of a crime and how those mechanics can fail. There’s a wonderful moment right after Webb shows up, when he comes back to James and says that he’s discovered just how much money he has in his bank account (since James’ parents’ money went to his grandmother, who left it all to him). Webb is shocked by the discovery, and excited too, while James, bound and gagged, is helpless to stop him. You can just feel how wrongly this is going to play out. It’s a scene that exemplifies “Two Step” as a whole: deeply human, full of dread simmering just beneath the surface and quietly unsettling. [B]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 SXSW Film Festival.