Friday, August 28, 2009

KERBEROS - A BADASS MOVIE REVIEW


KERBEROS, directed by and starring Kely McClung, is the coolest independent crime drama you have never heard of. You will though. This is one of those special films that claws its way to the top and demands respect.

With the tagline of “The gates of hell go one way,” KERBEROS is named for the three-headed dog that guards those very gates. The film drags the viewer to that dog and forces a staredown. It is a protracted, visceral gaze into the abyss executed with devastating precision. As is typical for the genre, this gritty film has interesting plot twists and heavy dose of violence. But unlike a typical Hollywood crime drama, KERBEROS is human at its core. Its primary focus is the ambiguous nature of the human experience and the compromises we all have to make to function with personal integrity.

The complexity of the main character is evident in the first scene. The wide-angle that frames the opening shot in the rainy graveyard with Mike Finn (Kely McClung) standing over his daughter's grave sets a sad and poetic tone. His squared form is that of a brute. His face is handsome yet rough, and there is an air of thuggishness about him. But when Finn leans over to kiss the grave, it is clear that this is a man with regrets, a man of tenderness. As the camera follows the movements of his face, it reveals a very, very thoughtful individual.

Mike Finn lives in an apartment building across the hall from a corrupt cop, Tony Menacci (Stan Harrington). We first meet Tony sexually menacing a prostitute (Courtney Hogan) in a scene that firmly establishes him as a brutal scumbag. He is also abusive towards his wife and stepdaughter, Katie (Whitney Sullins). Sullins' performance and McClung's direction give Katie the luminous appeal of all that is good and unsullied.

Finn has a wholesome relationship with Katie. The teenaged girl playfully snaps Finn’s picture with her new Polaroid camera. The relationship he has with Katie is simple and platonic on par with that of a father to a daughter. Finn is saddled with self-loathing for his brutal past. But Katie knows that he is a good person and tells him so.

When Katie is caught photographing her crooked cop stepfather involved in two particularly brutal murders in an alleyway, the leash is officially off of this beast of a film. More and more criminal characters and elements are introduced, and many want a piece of Katie. Some want Katie for her photographs; others want her for her connection with Finn. As the film builds in its complexity, our comprehension of the characters and theirs of each other becomes increasingly confounded.

There are two things that are straightforward for the viewer, however. We learn that Finn went to jail for a bank robbery and that he has a way with his fists. Finn spends some of his free time watching and betting on FIGHT CLUBesque street fights. Several flashbacks to Finn in prison show the kind of fighting machine that Mike Finn actually is. Despite unfair odds, Finn has survived prison brawls unbroken; rather they seem to have made him even more determined. Determined for what? That is part of the beauty of this story. Finn has a secret. After prison Finn tries to go straight. But there are some evil people who want his secret exposed, and they will use the bluntest of force to get their answers.

Finn is forced to shrug off his attempt to be a decent citizen and embrace his inner violent demons when Katie disappears. And immediately it is made bone-crunchingly clear that no one is going to stop him from getting Katie back to safety. The beatings that Finn administers get rougher and rougher as the film continues. In some ways this movie builds like a gritty, updated and Americanized GAME OF DEATH. Finn has to fight his way up the chain of antagonists, and the audience has to hang on and unravel the plot as the bodies drop. We are well into the brutal third act before it is really clear what Finn is holding onto. This film is so thick that when it ends and the mayhem is over, the viewer is left with many scenes to reflect upon. And all of those scenes contribute to the air-tight plot.

As the story develops, the violence gets heavy. It will make you squirm. A tangible air of menace is hovering in most scenes. As smarmy, dangerous characters led with charm and smug assurance by Armstrong (Robert Pralgo) are introduced, the metaphoric assimilation of KERBEROS, the three-headed dog of the damned, is brought to completion. All of the characters in this film stand at the gates of their own private hell, and the majority of them are destroying each other as they jockey for some sort of power.

All of this violence looks real. Production values are high. This is an independent film with a limited budget, clocking in at well under $100,000 for production, and I will be damned if I don’t tell you it looks like something that cost well over a million. Executive Producer Brad "the coolest guy on the planet" Fallon is sure getting his money's worth. Details like gravestones, police vehicles, the snarl of a Mustang’s V-8 and the percussive sound of bludgeoning fists are all precise, reveled in, and demonstrate intimate levels of care taken in the making of KERBEROS.

There is a feel to this film that is McClung’s signature. His style is his own. It references Tony Scott, Antoine Fuqua, and Joe Carnahan, but does not completely bite their styles. In KERBEROS the camera perspective often alternates between extreme close-up and wide angle, between intimacy and distance. Also at times crucial elements are left offscreen generating suspense and paranoia. As a filmmaker, Kely McClung has stamped his own mark here. He has created a world that is his and feels like a place he could possibly return to with a different film.

Crime films are common. They are often badly made and so prevalent that they tend to be a nuisance. Clich├ęs are rampant, and the implausible narrative elements that an audience is forced to accept have become ridiculous. KERBEROS is a film that recognizes these failings and compensates with sophisticated dialogue and a loose-end-free plot.

Even the relatively good movies that one thinks of when compiling a list of recent crime-thrillers are all trumped in one way or another by KERBEROS. Jason Bourne takes out a couple of traffic cops in THE BOURNE IDENTITY, but the beating is sterile compared to what Finn does to policemen. The Mexican standoff in RESERVOIR DOGS is trumped to such a degree that you will have to see it to believe it. The “get that gun out of my face” motif running through TRAINING DAY is trumped too. This film takes the traditional crime drama and adrenalizes it in new, unexpected ways.

Plus the characters are fleshed out. The actors act here. No one is limping through this production. They all have their own way about them, and none seem to be reflecting a standard template. All are compromised and negotiating painful lives. The will of several characters is violently tested, and lives are thrown away. The lives of those that aren’t completely snuffed are marred physically and spiritually.

Filmmaker Kely McClung has lovingly thrown himself at this project and come correct. KERBEROS is currently nearing the end of its post-production. I was able to view a first test screening at Indie Fest in Anaheim. Keep your ears open in order to secure a viewing. Mark my words: you are going to hear about this film again and again. You heard it here first.

-Mediasaurus Rex

Visit the official KERBEROS site here

Visit the KERBEROS at INDIE FEST site here

Watch the KERBEROS trailer here

Check the KERBEROS thread in the Mediasaur Forum

More of my musings can be found here.

Questions? Email me here