Stranger dan­ger

In Arkansas brothers’ film, down and out wait­ress meets quiet char­ac­ter.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - PHILIP MARTIN

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.

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