“Inoffensive” isn’t the highest of praise you can heap upon a prison drama. But the faith-based biography “The Meanest Man in Texas” certainly qualifies. So let’s start from there and see where it takes us.
It’s a period piece about convicted murderer Clyde Thompson, sentenced to death in 1928 but paroled, who rewarded that reprieve by earning the nickname that became the film’s title — “The Meanest Man in Texas.”
As this is a faith-based film, you can pretty much guess that the road to redemption leads through Huntsville.
From the first moments, it’s obvious we’re dealing with a picture that is going to require a forgiving eye — the amateurism, or at least inexperience, of the cast and much of the crew is equally obvious. Well-intentioned or not, it’s inept on almost every level.
The players are the most fresh-scrubbed choir boy inmates in the history of “prison farm” movies, unpolished performers who have a collective lifelessness to their line readings.
Mateus Ward plays Clyde, a young Cisco, Texas lad who went out “huntin'” with his sweetheart’s mean, redneck brothers, not realizing they were looking to settle a score.
Some neighbor had insulted their sister, they said, saying “She’ll hunt with any dawg that comes sniffin’.” That’s enough to get you killed in that part of Texas at that time. Apparently.
Clyde has a pistol, but not the good sense to see he’s being set up. A wholly unnecessary trial just underlines that. Wracked by guilt, this preacher’s son confessed. But the reason the trial is “unnecessary” is that it serves as first-act filler, slows down the drama with ineptly-staged and written scenes that don’t get us into the meat of the movie faster.
In prison, Clyde meets Clyde Barrow (later to be the second half of “Bonnie & Clyde”) and assorted hard cases, smart alecks and sadists.
The threats from other inmates, the intimidation, the culture and the cruel guards turn Clyde from meek and remorseful to a shiv-stabbing sociopath — “The Meanest Man in Texas.”
That phrase is trotted out for him roughly 60 times in this script by director Justin Ward (father of star Mateus, a director of sports documentaries) and author Don Umphrey, whose book the screenplay is based on.
The script has a generic quality, the dialogue dips its toes in pure hokum.
There’s the brutish Captain (Jamie McShane) who lays down the law.
“There are three things I cherish — my devoted wife, fierce whiskey and corporal punishment.”
And we’ve got a sexual omnivore who wants to make Clyde his prison wife — “You’re prettier’n any woman I ever saw.”
He’s got a point. But it still gets him shivved.
The requisite botched escape attempts, getting thrown in “the hole,” tests of will delivered via lashes with a belt, it’s all here as it has been in every would-be “Cool Hand Luke.”
“Whattaya you got to say for yourself now, Thompson?”
At times, we can see young Ward grow into the part, just a smidge. But you can’t be this lightweight and pretty and pull off a line like “You’re lucky I ain’t killed you already, Captain.”
The pacing is slow, and the production design — white (often spotless) uniforms in sunlit white barracks or outdoor work details — has a washed-out look, save for night or inside “The Hole” scenes, which are so underlit they’re hard to process.
The acting provokes eye-rolling pretty much from the opening scene.
But one keeps coming back to the cornpone that comes out of everybody’s mouth. Take Alexandra Bard, who plays Julia — the “old maid” of 27, with Scoliosis (hard to play) who takes up Clyde’s cause and steals Clyde’s heart — and who sports quite the um, accent.
“When I find a man who loves me for mah mind, and traits me with respect…”
Even blown lines get into the final cut — “Governor Sterling reprieved your life sentence!” No, Gov. Sterling reprieved your death sentence. You got life in prison, boy!
Getting an indie film scripted and financed, cast, shot, edited and released is a Herculean effort, and hats off the cast and crew for telling this story in a coherent, if generic, drab and inoffensive way.
But if the script isn’t good enough to attract polished actors (McShane is experienced, but not good here, and he and character player Richard Riehle are the only two cast members I recognized), that’s your first clue that maybe you and your movie aren’t ready for their close-up.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Mateus Ward, Jamie McShane, Alexandra Bard
Credits: Directed by Justin Ward, script by Don Umphrey, Justin Ward, based on Umphrey’s book. An Ammo Content Release.
Running time: 1:45