In Arkansas brothers’ film, down and out waitress meets quiet character.
People make movies for all sorts of reasons — they might be drawn to the glamour of the profession, they might feel preternaturally moved by the play of dancing light — and it’s not our job to guess their motivations. That said, if I didn’t know that Arkansas filmmakers the Miller brothers were beautiful souls I’d be very afraid of them.
Because judging by the evidence of their work, which includes the beautifully realized Southern Gothic short Pillow (2010) and their latest project, the feature All the Birds Have Flown South, which opens the Film Society of Little Rock’s Fantastic Film Festival on Wednesday , Joshua H. and Miles B. Miller have some problems they’re working through. (The screening will be
held at 6 p.m. at Ron Robinson Theater, 100 River Market Ave., Little Rock. Tickets and information about the festival are at fantasticcinema.com.)
All the Birds Have Flown South is some bleak business, a brave and terrible film that never lets its audience off the hook. Somehow reminiscent of the work of Flannery O’ Connor and Harmony Korine, it’s a tour through the slipping-down precincts of access-road motels, cheap diners and the fusty houses of shut-ins. It’s an essay on uneasy loneliness, a plausible horror film about the people whose eyes we rarely meet.
North Little Rock native Joey Lauren Adams plays Tonya, a desperate, beaten-down waitress trying to hold it together as her abusive, terminally ill husband Jimmy (Dallas Roberts) is slipping away while camped out in a ratty room, an insulated jug by his side. And Paul Sparks (Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards) is Stephen, a socially awkward introvert whose elderly mother has just died.
In the film’s dialogue-free early minutes we watch as Stephen, dressed in a sad poly-blend suit and thriftstore tie, wanders through the house where he has presumably been living with his just deceased mother. It’s a creepy place, crammed with dusty bric-a-brac, an extensive doll collection (what’s creepier than dolls?) and a caged grackle, whom Stephen regards tenderly. These portentous scenes build a sense of unease that’s helped along by effectively ominous sound design, but there’s a countervailing current that suggests release — Stephen is as free of his mother as she is free of whatever earthly troubles plagued her. And maybe even the bird will get to fly the coop.
But it turns out Stephen is just going out for a while, to a nearby diner where he sees Tonya, hard-working and obviously preoccupied. Later he encounters her walking down the road and offers her a ride in what had to have been his mother’s old Ford Fairmont (a cherry late-’70s number with a half-vinyl roof). She’s wary, but she accepts, and soon Stephen’s helping her take vicious Jimmy to the hospital.
His obsession is obvious, but her wariness recedes before her need. Tonya needs help, transportation, and maybe even a little relief from having to deal with noxious Jimmy. While something is no doubt wrong with Stephen, he seems harmless.
Were I to continue the synopsis, you probably wouldn’t be surprised, but it’s to the Millers’ credit that they manage to not only hold our interest but engage our empathy for this blighted quasi-couple. It helps that Adams is fierce and vulnerable, that her portrayal of Tonya is utterly without vanity and deeply committed to the character’s truth. Her performance is tremendous and courageous in a way that most Oscar-seeking turns only pretend to be. Adams allows us to glimpse in Tonya an almost feral cunning and a kind of hopeless pliability. Tonya is one of the saddest creatures I’ve ever seen on screen, and Adams embodies her so completely I couldn’t help but worry that the actor might be doing herself harm in the process. (Don’t worry, I spoke to her. She’s fine.)
And Sparks rides the line between a little off and completely inappropriate, making Stephen precisely the sort of strange ranger that the neighbors might describe as “a quiet type who kept to himself.” He’s alarmingly still, presenting the flat effect of a functioning depressive. It’s a beautifully modulated case of an actor playing a man who must feel like an actor in his own life.
While the film is susceptible to the criticism that the script is a bit minimalistic and — for all the shock the ending might engender in some moviegoers — leads to an inevitable conclusion, the Millers demonstrate a masterful way with accretive selective detail. Like David Lynch, they tend to frame odd banalities that might have escaped our notice as clues to character. It’s important how Stephen knots his tie, the way Tonya pulls her canvas coat tight around her as she sucks hard on her cigarette. (Because if it looks like poetic cinema, it is poetic cinema.)
The Millers rightfully lean heavily on their secret weapon, cinematographer Gabe Mayhan. Working in 16 mm, Mayhan gives the film an antique, burnished look appropriate to the poorer quarters the characters inhabit. He finds a lot of beauty and a little warmth in this washedout, ramshackle world.
It might be fair to question why anyone would want to tell this sort of grim story, which a lot of people will find punishing, but the fact that All the Birds Have Flown South is hardly the feel-good hit of the year doesn’t mean it isn’t one of the best wrought films you’ll have the chance to see. It’s the kind of horror movie that transcends the genre label; it’s about the quiet monsters living lonely in our midst.
Just because Jimmy (Dallas Roberts) is bed-ridden doesn’t mean he’s not dangerous — or that he likes the guy who’s helping his wife out in All the Birds Have Flown South, a gritty Southern noir written and directed by Josh and Miles Miller.
Tonya (Joey Lauren Adams) is a down-on-her-luck waitress who’s trying to hold it together while caring for her terminally ill, abusive husband in All the Birds Have Flown South, which opens next week’s Fantastic Film Festival.
Stephen (Paul Sparks) is a quiet, lonely man whose fascination with a troubled waitress gets him into trouble in All the Birds Have Flown South.