At least as filmmakers have imagined it, this country’s northernmost climes lay somewhere in the hinterlands between city and farmland, an exurban wilderness of barred windows and black snow. These are towns you pass through on a road trip without slowing down, because you wouldn’t want to stay the night. In fact, these are towns where you’re apt to be robbed at gunpoint by a girl hidden in heavy coats, sidling up to empty your wallet and then running back to the car —a salt-flecked Impala the same gray as the surrounds, as though it were trying to disappear. This is land pioneered by Sam Raimi in A Simple Plan and the Coen brothers in Fargo, an icy frontier so devoid of activity it drives otherwise reasonable people to commit unthinkable crimes.
Second-Story Man, director Neal Dhand’s feature-length debut, which premiered at the Cinequest Film Festival in March, bears favorable comparison with these first settlers of the subgenre (trailer below). Though the writing is not nearly as accomplished, not pricked with the same black comedy and desperate violence, Dhand’s fleet direction and Chris Bowman’s arresting cinematography go some way to making up for its shortcomings. The girl running back to the car is Monique (Valerie Monique Evering), a levelheaded crook who dreams of going away. Her getaway driver is Arthur (Christopher J. Domring), who passes the time waiting to stand on the gas by answering her daughter Maria’s innocent questions from the backseat.
Dr. Spock surely did not recommend bringing your kid on a crime spree. But Monique’s desire to get Maria away from this unstable life for good precipitates the bank robbery from which the rest of the narrative descends, and which forms the best evidence of the filmmakers’ potential. Eric Zabriskie’s bumbling, operatic score mars the scene immeasurably — it clashes with the very sounds on which our tension, like Arthur’s, is predicated — but we’re still left with a startling exercise in increasing panic. Watch as Domring’s watery eyes tighten and the aural evidence piles up: the gunshots, the screaming, the voices that are everybody’s and everywhere except the one he is waiting for.
Reaching such a high-water mark this early in a film can be dangerous, and Second-Story Man eventually succumbs to the close, arid atmosphere it creates. The tone switches from gritty criminality to emotional Rorschach blot, an earth-toned canvas onto which we project romance, buddy movie, heist flick, or indie drama. Trying to be all of these, the film ends up being none; the final-act hysterics are but an overwrought imitation of a movie we’ve already forgotten about. Such twists of plot don’t do justice to what Second-Story Man seems really to be about: the aftermath of a terrible mistake, the lurching effort to pick up and try to start over from scratch.
Faced with the particulars of their past, these are people practically willing themselves to disappear. And so instead of a fitting ending it’s necessary to rely on the film’s uncannily sorrowful images of the world around the characters, like a high, snow-white field used for target practice, where all that is solid melts into air and the ground recedes into sky, or on Arthur’s explanation of a second-story man as “me, when I was younger” — a non-answer, an obfuscation, like that Impala on the point of vanishing.
Second-Story Man opens August 5 for a short theatrical run in Lake Park, Florida, and will open in Chicago in late summer/early fall.