I doff my fedora at any indie filmmaker with the wherewithal to take a shot at making a period piece with little or no money, rather than going the slasher/spatter film route like everybody else.
But if you’re letting actors complain, in a 1933 gangsters-in-the-sticks thriller, about “Bogarting” a bottle of Virginia Dare wine, if you’re not just leaning on voice-over narration as a crutch, but as a genuine FDR vintage wheel chair, if you’re pretentious enough to name your slow-talking, slow-moving movie “Whelm,” maybe slasher is the safer way to go.
When a character labels another a “more of a pencil, he’s not the muscle,” and gets chewed out, take your own scripted criticism to heart.
“What’re you writing, a play? Nobody talks like that.”
“Whelm” is a reasonably good looking thriller about rural brothers getting mixed up in a nasty cat and mouse game between a famous gangster and his biggest fan, a pompous, pitiless fanboy who spells his name out so all will know who is messing around with bad boy “Jimmy.”
“Alexander Aleksy,” he (Delil Baran) intones. “Spelled A.L.E.K.S.Y.”
That sets the tone for this portentous, obscurant and meandering movie that skirts the edges of the Dillinger legend. We are not at all surprised when Alexander starts speaking German, not Russian, to a woman whom we’ve heard ID herself as “Edie” and “Polly” at various points.
Just picking up on who is named what is a chore in this laborious “film festival movie.”
And it’s also no surprise when Alexander gets his hands on a fencing mask and an épée, which becomes his weapon of choice later on.
“Jimmy” (Grant Schumacher) is our gangster, a guy with some cash stashed in the safe of a rural Midwestern inn. Alexander gets to that cash first in the most bizarre and pointless way, a talkative robbery that involves torture, a big block of ice and an old innkeeper (Mark Hoover).
The brothers, who are mixed up in moonshining, are bearded tough-guy August (Ronan Colfer) and the fellow who does most of the not-quite-constant sleepy narrating Reed (Dylan Grunn), whose name I didn’t pick up until very late in the picture, not that it matters.
Reed drawls through florid narrated passages meant to illuminate the proceedings and flesh out the other characters, but make you wonder if ol’Tennessee — Williams, or Ernie Ford — is takin’ his mint julep on the VERANDA in the cool of this evening.
“He had a way of wrapping you in words so tight, you didn’t know which way was up.”
“Our man was a Grade A mystery, but he had a shine for low company.”
There’s a little gunplay, a lot of walking and a lot more talking in this tale that unfolds in thirteen slowly slow-walked chapters.
Odd twists aren’t wholly explained, relationships are uncertain, characters flip from antagonists to trusting confidantes with no more motivation than the expediencies of the script. Most of the performers struggle to find their footing, and when in doubt, walk even slower and talk even slower still.
But praise be, a Ford Trimotor airplane is trotted out among the period-correct firearms and motorcars and Virginia Dare win. It’s still a shame “Whelm” is a period piece gangster “thriller” that drowns in its own murk.
MPA Rating: unrated, violence, sex and profanity
Cast: Delil Baran, Dylan Grunn, Ronan Colfer, Grant Schumacher, Mark Hoover and Francesca Anderson.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Skyler Lawson. A Gravitas Ventures release.
Running time: 1:56