A movie about puzzle-making, "The Arbalest" is appropriately tough to figure out, but not for the right reasons. Stiffly paced and marred by a cerebral tone that stymies the intriguing nature of its narrative, writer-director Adam Pinney's first feature continually holds back any potential for the drama to sink in. Mike Brune stars as enigmatic inventor Foster Kalt, a Howard Hughes-like reclusive famed for inventing "the Kalt Cube" — basically, it's the Rubik's Cube, in the movie's alternate universe, in which Kalt took the credit for the idea from another inventor.
Unlike the the product that makes Kalt rich, "The Arbalest" plays out like a series of disconnected puzzle pieces tossed around without much direction. Just as Kalt manages to con his consumers, "The Arbalest" has had a similar effect on some of its first audiences, as it inexplicably won the grand jury prize at the SXSW Film Festival, a year of far worthier candidates.
Of course, awards are fickle objects that don't always point to quality — and with juries reflecting all kind of sensibilities, you just can't account for taste — but anyone expecting the movie's prize to be evident in the actual project should expect something different. Pinney's script generates some modicum of mystery around its time-shifting structure, which continually moves between the early stages of Kalt's career in the sixties and an interview he conducts with a news crew in the mid-seventies. With period-appropriate costumes and a blend of film formats to reflect the different eras, "The Arbalest" has no problem establishing its parallel eras, but the story itself never keeps pace.
The concise 76-minute running time mainly dwells on Foster's lifelong affection for a woman named Sylvia (indie staple Tallie Medel, whose eerie stare transcends the limitations of the material). During a meeting between Kalt and the cube's inventor, Sylvia shows up as his partner; when the man abruptly drops out of the picture, she talks Kalt into taking credit for the design. This inexplicable power grab leads them to maintain a passionate long-distance romance, at least until Kalt becomes too enamored of success and falls into a drug-fueled spiral a few years later.
These scenes, told in a series of flashbacks to a television reporter, find Brune covered in a distracting blond hairdo, which strikes an alarming contrast with the beard-and-sunglasses look he sports in the seventies. Overacting in every scene, Brune is perpetually trapped in an unfunny "Saturday Night Live" sketch, even as the movie aims for a more unsettling form of psychological uneasiness. When he turns violent in an ill-fated attempt to reclaim his lost love, the hyperbole is particularly out of synch with the dreary proceedings.
Pinney's script doesn't fare much better. The plot hints at a "Citizen Kane"-like investigation into the hubris of a man alienated from the real world by his delusions of grandeur, but the stilted, one-note dialogue never digs too deep. (Sample: "If I could invent something that could fix a broken heart, I would've done it a long time ago.") The final moments, in which the character unveils his latest invention, takes "The Arbalest" into a dreamlike space that suggests nothing is what it seems.
Such is the case with the implications of the movie's award at SXSW, a festival keen on showcasing tales of inventive minds, some of which actually deserve the acclaim. (The 2015 premiere "Creative Control," which envisioned a disgruntled inventor in the near-future with pathologies similar to those facing the star of "The Arbalest," actually deserved more attention.) "The Arbalest" outlines the idea of one such movie, but never gets there with its execution.
Aided by an eerie soundtrack and a jagged editing style that causes ongoing disorientation, there's enough filmmaking conceits on display here to suggest some modicum of vision. But too much of "The Arbalest" feels like unearned gravitas, and with its baffling conclusion, it creates the sense that those disparate puzzle pieces never fit together in the first place.
"The Arbalest" won the grand jury prize at the 2016 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.