‘I lost my erection because from certain angles she reminded me of Michael Heseltine. Michael Heseltine – in case you were wondering – is a British politician from the 1980s.’
If you saw the first and third acts of producer Ant Timpson’s directorial debut as self-contained short films, you’d never be able to work out what connects them – but, in the movie, the second act miraculously manages to make a plot/mood/genre shift feel like a natural progression. A major reason for this is Elijah Wood – one of the most adventurous leading men of his generation – giving an intense, yet generous performance which lets a series of character actors (Stephen McHattie, Martin Donovan, Michael Smiley) show off their chops but always brings the focus back to the lead. It’s not spoken by Wood, but one of the most significant throwaway lines is ‘yes, I was the guy in the corner watching’ – and this is full of terrific, wordless reaction takes from Wood as his character sinks deeper into a maelstrom of family secrets and is required to take more and more extreme acts to get through it all.
Scripted by Toby Harvard (The Greasy Strangler) from a story by Timpson, the movie starts with Norval Greenwood (Wood) arriving at a remote, impressively funky beachside home – described as looking like ‘a UFO from the 60s’ – in response to a letter from the father who abandoned him and his Mom when he was a child, hoping to learn something about the man and forge some sort of a relationship. Norval’s haircut is at once obviously expensive and deeply crap – and the same goes for his gold-plated limited edition cell phone and Asian character neck tattoos. When the crusty, leathery old guy in the house (McHattie) asks him what he does in the music industry, he waffles about it and tries to impress Daddy with the big names he claims as friends – though the only one Dad has heard of is Elton John, and he claims that as a limo driver he knows ‘Reginald’ too, proving that they’re both full of shit. This stretch of the film is low-key, nuanced, sinister, funny-painful and hinges on the mystery of why the old man even bothered to write the letter to the mid-thirties kid he plainly despises (and accuses of stuffing rats up his vagina). Norval admits to having issues with alcohol, which Daddy – who guzzles straight from the bottle – takes to mean he can’t handle his drink … and it emerges that growing up with money (mysteriously) but without a father has left him desperately incomplete.
Then, things happen … and the mood changes, with the arrival of new characters, questions raised about what we’ve come to believe, an escalation of grim comedy violence in the shaggy dog story tradition of many recent backwoods noirs, secrets hidden under the UFO, and contrasting guest turns from Donovan and Smiley as treacherous, dangerous ex-comrades of the old man. There’s a certain probing melancholy in the father-son scenes that gives way to more action-oriented desperation and a lot of non sequitur talk that’s genuinely funny (a routine about the relative nutritional values of a severed ear and a shot-glass full of semen is going to be quoted for a while) or truly bizarre (including the line about Michael Heseltine, quoted above). The plot snakes around and eats itself, as Norval struggles for answers – with all three of his co-stars positioned as possible bad fathers with whom he has to make some sort of connection in a long-lost-parent version of ‘snog, marry, kill’. An Irish-Canadian-New Zealand co-production set in Oregon, it has a lovely, misleadingly calming central location – though it relocates to a seedy swingers’ motel for a gruesome climax.