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Unfolding like a Nicholas Winding Refn-directed remake of “Shotgun Stories” — albeit one that’s a bit dopier than that sounds — Gary Michael Schultz’s “Vincent N Roxxy” is a nasty little thriller that moves at the pace of a southern drawl before going absolutely berserk in its final minutes. It’s the rare meditation on violence that doubles as a masterclass in the same subject.
Continuing his transition from pipsqueak prom date into one of Hollywood’s most unlikely tough guys (to say nothing of his real-life run in with the law), Emile Hirsch plays a terse greaser named Vincent. Sliding behind the wheel of his black muscle car for a 700-mile drive from “the city” to someplace southwest, our boy barely gets out of his driveway before he sees another vehicle get deliberately sideswiped at an intersection. Sitting at a red light, he watches as the assailant drags a beautiful woman from the wreckage, and throws her to the pavement. Vincent — perhaps more of a good Samaritan than he seems — rushes over to the scene of the crime and saves the dreadlocked damsel in distress from the goon who’s kicking her sideways.
The duo heads out of town and drives off into the night. He’s completely incurious in the way that only a movie character can be, but she volunteers a few choice bits of information. Her name is Roxxy (Zoë Kravitz), and her brother was murdered three days ago because he “was into some bad shit” (this is the kind of film in which that’s a perfectly sufficient explanation). The spelling of her name is never addressed, but it could be a nod to the band the xx, whose music swamps the movie during its most critical moments.
Vincent returns to the dilapidated farm where his brother has recently buried their mom. Played by “Brooklyn” breakout Emory Cohen (who delivers another mealymouthed performance so affected that you can almost hear Marlon Brando’s ghost telling him to turn it down a notch), JC walks with a limp that suggests that his rundown rural world is even less friendly than it looks. Maybe that’s why he’s a bit skeptical when Roxxy shows up, looking for a place to lie low. Maybe even start a new life. Good luck with that.
For a film that takes place in an unspecified stretch of midwestern nowhere, “Vincent N Roxxy” boasts a remarkably cohesive sense of place. The sparsely populated town where Vincent and JC grew up exudes a strong “Winter’s Bone” vibe, like the Ozarks had been flattened by a plague of some kind. “Everybody drinks moonshine in these parts,” Roxxy is told, and that’s enough to give her a lay of the land.
Vincent is nothing if not a product of his environment. A brooding loner who only smiles when nobody’s looking, he’s as desolate as the rundown drive-in where he takes Roxxy to look at the stars. Hirsch isn’t given all that much to say — Schultz wrote the character like he had to pay him by the word — but he finds a happy medium somewhere between Warren Oates and Ryan Gosling, and Vincent eventually blooms into the actor’s most compelling role since “Into the Wild” or “The Girl Next Door.” Schultz’s austere compositions seem to take their inspiration from Vincent’s character, steady and just empty enough to make you want to lean in and look for the details.
Much of the film’s first half coasts on the chemistry between Hirsch and Kravitz, as Schultz takes a refreshingly patient approach to their romance — it’s inevitable that the smoke show between them will eventually catch fire, but the slow burn adds to the tension. Kravitz, for her part, is the force that allows “Vincent N Roxxy” to drive out of bounds without losing control. A reliably watchable actress who’s often been wasted on mediocre material (e.g. the “Divergent” series), she’s never taken the wheel of a film like she does here. For most of the movie, her character doesn’t have to do much more than bare her midriff and tremble her bottom lip, but it’s through Roxxy that the film ultimately evolves from a cocksure exercise in cinematic tension into a breathlessly bonkers (if slightly confused) inquiry into something a bit deeper.
Schultz is attuned to the language of violence from the start. It’s the veil through which he introduces all of the story’s major characters. It’s also the engine with which he drives their drama, as the first two-thirds of the movie is focused on escalating the tension between CJ and the local burnout who used to date his girlfriend (the ex is mocked for being in a rap-metal band, an amusing touch for a film that — if not for its craft — would feel like a feature-length adaptation of an “Affliction” t-shirt).
The men in this movie saunter around like their dicks are dangling between their knees, and the women are invariably positioned as excuses for — and victims of — whatever fisticuffs result from their pissing contests. Every punch someone throws sounds like Superman uppercutting a watermelon, as Schultz jacks the sound effects up to a hilarious degree in order to ensure that viewers always feel the full weight of the trauma that Vincent and Roxxy are both trying to escape.
When things take a hard left turn and the powder keg of violence finally explodes, the fallout is shocking to a degree that’s almost never seen in new American cinema. On one hand, it feels like Schultz has spent the first two acts preparing us for the third. On the other, the action escalates so extremely — and the tone shifts so completely — that the last 25 minutes of the movie are dominated by a giddy sense of whiplash. In fact, the final act is such a jaw-dropper that it’s easy to overlook how it wantonly celebrates the violence that it claims to abhor.
It’s not a total act of self-contradiction, as there’s plenty of grey area between violence and victimhood, but the film’s wild finish is undeniably muted by the sense that “Vincent N Roxxy” can’t decide if shootouts are cool or not, and that Schultz’s film might be infected by the same mindset that plagues his characters. An argument could be made that such murkiness is part of the point — and the strength of Kravitz’s performance is in how she convincingly sells both sides — but Schultz doesn’t leave enough wiggle room to have his cake and eat it, too. Still, for a movie that doesn’t quite know what it’s trying to say about violence, it sure knows how to say it with vigor.
“Vincent N Roxxy” premieres this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.