After his times on the sets of Buddy Giovinazzo and Abel Ferrara movies, James Russo knows a thing or two about hard-edged, low budget cinema. While he has put in impressive supporting performances and convincing bit-part turns over the years, the veteran character actor relishes the opportunity to take centre stage here as both leading man and writer. What he accomplishes is a provocative and disturbing modern day noir that refuses to compromise with recent trends in diminishing (i.e. dumbing down) audience expectations.
Middle aged thief Frank Miles (James Russo) is released from a three-year stint in prison. After landing a job at a wrecking yard as a mechanic, he visits crime boss Dickerson (Jon Polito) for whom he did time after a jewellery store heist and demands the $200,000 owed for the job. Awaiting the promised payment, Frank is ambushed by a pair of thugs later that evening, paid by Dickerson to kill him.
After dealing with them in a vicious encounter, Frank confronts Dickerson at his home and has no option but to kill the man in self-defence when a gun is pulled. Clearing away the evidence, he opens Dickerson’s safe, but finds a measly $2000. Back to legitimate work, Frank tries to keep on the straight-and-narrow and strikes up a relationship with waitress Dora (Theresa Russell), but is prevented from a normal life by her abusive ex-husband Jake (Steve Railsback) who pesters her.
Following Dora after her visit by Jake, Frank discovers that she is being forced to work nights as a barmaid at a strip club. When Jake tries to beat her during a later visit at her home, Frank intervenes. A fight breaks out, and Dora is forced to shoot Jake when he tries to kill Frank. Just as it seems circumstances cannot get worst, the couple discover a box housing a significant amount of money stashed by Jake.
The two plan to make a quick getaway, and all seems good until Detectives Stafford (Michael Rooker) and Miller (John Snyder) arrive on the scene looking for Jake and his money. When Frank goes to pack his belongings, Stafford gets his mitts on Dora and forces the hard luck hero to get the cash in exchange for her. Little does Frank know that Stafford drives an extremely hard bargain…
Beginning in the vein of Michael Mann’s excellent THIEF (1981), with its jaded ex con’s doomed yearning for a “normal life”, THE BOX nevertheless makes a significant aesthetic shift. Eschewing the ultra slick, stylistic overkill that characterizes Mann’s work, director Pepin opts for a more thoughtful, low-key approach amplified by a subtle, brooding score. Set in LA, almost every image is soaked in sunlight, which seems to drain the frame of colour and adds an appropriately bleak edge. Not only are the locations brilliantly shot, but also faces too. All characters, including the normally glamorous Russell, are photographed unflatteringly: every crack and blemish is emphasised, allowing us to read subtle nuances of feeling and expression of these troubled individuals.
But this is Russo’s baby, and his excellent writing illuminates his characters with subtlety and ambiguity. Lovers Frank and Dora are linked with some striking parallels and contrasts. Both are abused by wealthy criminals on personal and “professional” levels: Dickerson never bothered to visit Frank in jail, even though he had taken a fall for him and subsequently tries not only to rip him off but kill him. Dora, meanwhile, suffers head games by weirdo Jake who forces her to work nights at his bar. The parallel is reinforced visually but unobtrusively: Frank wears a plaster above his battered eyebrow after a fight with Dickerson’s thugs, and Dora suffers a black eye when Jake hits her – lending believability to this tale of two souls trying to connect in a world that conspires to prise them apart with the harshest of circumstances.
Also, worthy of mention is the performance of Michael Rooker. The excellent and undervalued star of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986, John McNaughton) contributes a likewise chilling turn as the remorseless, casually cruel Detective Stafford. Illegible behind a huge, caterpillar moustache and frequently skulking around the periphery of the frame, he appears at first dull and officious but progresses from one horrifying act of cruelty to another with barely a change of timbre to his soft voice. Rooker lends Stafford a remarkable degree of deadpan cruelty - disturbing for his very lack of affect - and his conflicts with Frank are Dora are thus injected an alarming edge.
Directed by Richard Pepin
USA / Colour / 99 minutes
Optional Spanish Subtitles
An MTI Video DVD Release
Region 1 NTSC / 1.85:1