Monday, May 28, 2012

Once Upon a Time in the Midwest

When I was in high school, I really dug the book The Grapes of Wrath. From the first moment I began reading about Tom Joad (and his brother Al) I knew I was going to like the story. I didn't know why, I just felt that it was something striking, something *for me,* by the strength of those first few chapters. I just went through a very similar situation after viewing the independent feature film, Once Upon A Time in the Midwest; I knew after only a few scenes that I was going to like it. And though I'd be hard pressed to say exactly what sold me most (humor, music, filmmaking), director Matt Kowalski had me feelin' Minnesota from the very first moment. Well, more than normal, that is, as I live here, but you know what I mean.
Once Upon A Time in the Midwest is a story about small town corruption, the man who finds himself suddenly thrust into its undoing, and the characters who aid him in his journey. When Jim Lessin (played by Dave Gerjets) stumbles into the Rock Bottom Bar in the middle of a storm one night, he's greeted by the crazed, wide-eyed rantings of a mysterious young man who tells him he must run for mayor. Unsure of his ability to fulfill this "destiny," and unrehearsed in politics, Jim seeks the advice of a friend who leads him to Trevis O'Keefe (Will Farley), a cocky, young punk with drug connections whose motives and methods are questionable but who seems at least agreeable to the cause. As the film progresses, we discover secrets from Trevis's past that link him to the town's corrupt administration along with another man, Frank Falk (Justin Hawkins), who gambles. The rest of the story centers on the interactions between these three men, and how despite completely different agendas, they end up fighting for the same cause in the end. As the banjo plays on, the bodies pile up, and while not exactly an optimistic sort of tale, it's still a (bloody) good time.
This film is clearly best suited for fans who won't shy away from violence but there are moments of comedy too, mostly involving (Kowalski's) Sheriff Deputy Zane Boulder's buffoonish eating or scenes where he attempts to pull rank on people. In terms of the other actors' performances, it was clear that some members of the cast were more experienced than others, and that a few scenes could have been tightened or maybe shortened a little just for neatness, but overall, the main characters were interesting and well-written and the actors played well together. Most outstanding was Dave Gerjets as Jim Lessin, who gave a completely straight-out, honest performance as the town's unlikely hero; his deliveries, his reactions, and most of all his validity really made the picture. We all know this guy, or someone like him, and though not exactly glamorous, Jim Lessin IS Minnesota. Nice work. 
In terms of production, especially a first feature production, the filmmaking and music were really well done. The only real critiques I have are on a few of the acoustics and the length of two or three scenes, but again, first productions are first productions, and no film is ever perfect. On the positive side, some of the strongest scenes in the film were the ones that showcased Kowalski's editing choices, close ups that show the status of the Boulder family (framed photograph, ringed fingers) or the continuity cutting that captured the tension outside the house of one of Frank's poker games. The song "Diggin' My Grave" by William Elliott Whitmore and original music by Kyle Pfeiffer were excellent throughout; the music placement overall was really good. Kowalski obviously has a solid background in clever films; many of the scenes were reminiscent of the filmmaking styles of Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, and even a touch of David Lynch. It was fun seeing how everything tied up together, and though I liked the ending (ha, Twilight Zone, much?) I was kind of bummed when it was over. And while Tom Joad he ain't, I'd love to see maybe eight or ten episodes of Jim in that mayor's office, might there be a market for that down the road?