The hopes and restless dreams of white trailer trash, and the unfortunate and cyclical circumstances of economic and spiritual poverty in the Dirty Deep South, are explored with moody, but uneven results in “Dixieland,” the directorial debut of Hank Bedford, a film about star-crossed lovers, fate, and bad choices. Chris Zylka stars as Kermit, a restless, reckless 20-something trying to find his way in the world. He’s just been released from a stint in prison for violence. It should be a glorious day, but the specter of a contemptible guard predicting he’ll be back sooner rather than later taints Kermit’s first moment of freedom.
It doesn’t help that Kermit knows what awaits him on the outside: a trailer home, limited opportunities, a loving, but disappointed mother (country star Faith Hill letting her hair down and taking her make-up off for maybe the first time in her career), and misguided friends willing to lead him right back into a life of crime. Kermit is at a crossroads, though the heedless young adult may not be aware of it: get drawn back into the life and go back to jail or change his narrative.
The impetus to clean up his act appears with the arrival of girl next door (literally), Rachel (Riley Keough), a brash, chain-smoking girl also struggling to make ends meet in the local trailer park. Compelled by Rachel’s unlucky circumstances — she’s taken to stripping and has a cancer-ridden mother to support — Kermit becomes driven to help her out. Cavalier in his approach, with his choices and his heart, the duo soon assume an hasty, whirlwind romance, but the urge to rescue his girl and the temptation to make a quick and easy (but criminal) buck prove to be a deadly combination. But the movie doesn’t provide anything deeper than this surface and familiar entrée.
Utilizing a framing device of interviews with real Deep South natives — many of them impoverished, marginalized, and saddled with poor socio-economic circumstance — discussing their plights and hardships in life, all the while representin’ their “born-and raised” roots, this conceit doesn’t really spark the picture like the filmmaker hopes it will. In fact, it interrupts the already drifting pace, and as “Dixieland” doesn’t have a lot of substantial meat on the bone, outside of a familiar star-crossed lovers narrative with a soupçon of crime to it, this framing device underscores just how thin the movie is.
Even at a fairly customary 95 minutes, “Dixieland” has a difficult time sustaining its romance/crime narrative. While the interviews connect to an income equality/socio-economic theme, they mostly serve as padding to a story that maybe should have been told in 55 or 60 minutes. Of course, this runtime would kill most of its “feature-length” theatrical chances, so the movie just keeps its filler.
Performance wise, it’s nice to see Faith Hill trying on a role like this, but the character is fairly limited and she doesn’t have that much to do. Having more to chew into is Brad Carter as a sleazy strip club owner, but his role is also fairly predictable and one-dimensional. “Breaking Bad” star RJ Mitte turns up for a minute as a dangerous drug dealer, Steve Earle plays Kermit’s indigent, but empathetic uncle, and wrestler Mick Foley, aka Mankind, shows up in a odd dream scene cameo as himself.
Co-produced by Riley Keough, in retrospect the movie then feels like an excuse to build a starring vehicle around a talented actress who knows something about Mississippi (she’s the granddaughter of Elvis Presley). While she and Zylka do their best to imbue the movie with color and texture — and both their performances infer a lot, maybe more than is on the page, and the instinctual qualities of his character are a nice touch — the script doesn’t afford them many tones to play with.
Despite its shortcomings, Bedford’s film — he was an assistant to David O. Russell, Bennett Miller, and Tarsem Singh in the past — excels at mood and occasionally even lands in a soulful moment. West Dylan Thordson‘s (“Foxcatcher”) sparse score is somber and best communicates the character’s desires and longings for something more. Likewise, cinematographer Tobias Datum‘s use of natural light makes for a picture that often looks and feels dreamy and meditative.
But “Dixieland” otherwise strains itself to be a compelling story of the South. Often it feels like an pretext to hang out with some wild, crazy, and dangerous people who don’t have much regard for anything outside of a paper chase and themselves. In it’s overlong last act (which should have ended at least 15-20 minutes earlier), “Dixieland” hopes to position itself as a plaintive tone poem about the South, its people, its culture, and its a tenor, which the filmmaker is obviously proud of and has a strong understanding of. But a full meal movie this does not really make. Low on ideas and high on atmosphere, “Dixieland” is a promising debut, but it likely won’t find you overwhelmingly writing back home about it. [C]