Don’t let the bad pun in the title scare you off the wine country mystery “Brut Force.”
Writer-director Eve Symington’s debut feature is a solid, engrossing film noir set in California’s pinot noir terroir. It’s the sort of smart, simply-shot, well-acted indie film that you wish more first-time filmmakers would aim for, instead of this “I’ll get my start with a cheap horror movie” mantra that they must drill into the kids in film school.
Symington created a marvelous star vehicle for her younger sister Lelia Symington, casting her as an inquisitive just-fired-reporter who starts looking into some shenanigans aimed at the migrant workers who pick the grapes at her step-dad’s vineyard in tiny, working class Santa Lucia de las Frutas. The can of worms she opens brings land ownership history, dirty tricks, violence, arson, corrupt cops and small town politics into play.
It’d make an interesting news story, if she was still working for the magazine we see her smirking her way out of, carrying everything from her desk with her as this guy — we assume her boss — rants and rails at her in an introductory scene.
In an instant, Sloane Sawyer’s character is set up. As befits the name, she comes from money. Symington plays her with the cocksure self-confidence that comes from that, a good education, journalism experience, that lack of self-consciousness worn by the unassumingly beautiful and a life that’s toughened her up.
Doesn’t matter that Sloane drives an ancient Toyota. This is her town or her stepdad’s town, and she’ll stick her nose wherever she wants. That boy that crushed on her in high school’s now a cop, and this creep who snaps “Be gone, college girl” is a guy she sent to the hospital senior year.
And there’s no worrying about a place to stay, so long as vintner stepdad (Sidney Symington) still has the hacienda, the winery, the land and the clout in this two vineyard town.
Sloane spies the hoodie-wearing dirty trickster harassing the Latin farm workers, starts asking around about a suspicious fire and starts getting her tires slashed.
Whatever’s going on here, the pickers — people she regards as family — are scared. And you’ve got to figure her semi-estranged stepfather — mom is dead — knows something, and that maybe the matriarch of a rival vineyard (Patricia Velasquez) is mixed up in it.
Director Symington takes her time unraveling this simple story with a lot of “history” in its moving parts. Tyler Posey comes in as “friend of a friend” and finds himself looking for the same winery employee (Vico Escorcia) that Sloane would like a word with.
Romantic sparks might fly if the ex-Angelino can dial down her snark. A local “activist” council member blathers away about how “Congress” might be her next step.
“They can have you.”
Someone speaks of her recently-deceased mother in “I’m sure she was a wonderful woman” platitudes.
“You didn’t know her.”
Not every player has the screen presence of our leading lady, so director Symington never lets a scene go by that Lelia Symington isn’t in the center of.
The mystery is somewhat diffuse before it finally starts to come into focus for the third act. Wine making is only glimpsed in picking montages and grape-crushing sequences, which feels like a waste of milieu.
Ah, but “Chinatown” wasn’t really about Chinatown, was it, Jake? “Brut Force” is about land, who controls it, and who will do whatever to get his or her hands on it.
The production values are modest but TV movie adequate, and that goes for the film as well. Director Symington puts some effort into creating the milieu that Sloane came from, and sending her into it thinking she’s a bull in a china shop even if she doesn’t have that sort of throw weight.
You can kind of pick up on this or that element that would probably make a larger distributor pass on putting this film out there, and the finale is kind of a melodramatic wash. But that takes nothing away from its virtues.
Eve Symington set her sister up for stardom with “Brut Force.” Maybe Lelia can return the favor next time out. But about that title…
Rating: unrated, violence, profanity
Cast: Lelia Symington, Tyler Posey, Sidney Symington, Patricia Velasquez, Vico Escorcia and Chase Mullins
Credits: An XYZ release.