The Presscott Film Festival has provided the best opportunity so far to observe indie film from across the US, and the globe for that matter. This year, I deliberately avoided many of the AZ indies (I’ve seen them already anyways) and sought out low budget, indie features from filmmakers I have never heard of. I saw a lot of films over the weekend and was pleased to realize that filmmakers all over the world, from seasoned Hollywood veterans to first and five-timers, experience the same pitfalls and tribulations the AZ filmmakers experience. I always admire the filmmakers who track me down at the festivals and ask me to review their films. Many have read my previous reviews already, yet insist I give their film the once over twice. The filmmaking duo of writer/producer Sam Ingraffia and director Doug Burch was no exception. While their film is definitely not an AZ indie, they graciously offered me a copy of their film, relentlessly pursuing a review of “Wages of Sin,” their latest feature made in 2011.
“Wages of Sin” is set in 1964, rural America. A young couple has kidnapped the daughter of a wealthy businessman, restraining her in the basement of their farmhouse as they negotiate a ransom with her dad and bicker amongst each other. There is sex, there is violence and there is lots and lots of serious psychobabble, as the troublesome trio digress into primal behavior, turning on one another as dark secrets are revealed, while still relying on each other to survive. Buddy (Travis Quentin Lee) is a down on his luck hayseed with lots of issues, most of them sexual in nature. Early on he struggles both internally and externally with latent homosexuality, sexual domination and compulsive monkey spanking. His young sweetheart Celee (Lauren Martin) isn’t fairing much better, impishly putting up with her truculent, loony beau as she anxiously prepares for their wedding day. The dimwitted duo kidnaps sorority snob Kathrine (Katharine Everett) for ransom and keep her tied up in the basement. When daddy no-bucks can’t pony up the dough, the nefarious nincompoops have to take a hefty pay cut (50% off!). Its going to take a couple of days to collect the money, so to kill time, the three will have to spend the weekend together and just “get to know each other.”
From the very beginning, ‘Wages’ offers no escape or optimism, powerfully and immediately integrating the viewer into a dreary, foreboding lair. ‘Wages’ provides a very dark and deeply depressing minimalist indie, with no location changes and only a handful of short, exterior shots to maximize isolation. Most of the film takes place in very subdued lighting, often utilizing only a single light source. As ‘Wages’ is so deeply dialog driven, there is very little to break up the action, relying on the nearly constant interaction of the characters. There are reveals around every corner, with conflicts and psychosis seemingly snatched out of the air. ‘Wages’ uses the character contrasts and creepy confines extremely effectively, as the claustrophobia and captivity are experienced by all, especially those watching the film.
Any time a film touts itself as “Cohen Brothers inspired” it is always a bad thing, and in the case of ‘Wages’ it is a clearly defined, dark-comedy direction at the beginning of the film that vanishes into thin air. It is interesting to note that the entire film was shot in sequence, which is extremely rare even for no budget indies. This becomes mildly detrimental to ‘Wages’ as the actors develop their characters in real time, taking them down paths that, at times, don’t really work. The performances of the dramatis personae are still exceptional and very watchable. Everett (who spends most of the film wearing only a bra flecked with vomit) is quite believable as the deeply troubled hostage lugging around plenty of her own baggage. If she is trying hard n o t to be seductive, then dust off the mantle ‘cause I see a couple of golden globes in the future! Both Martin and Lee work well off of each other, and have an explosive on screen chemistry. Left to her own devices, Martin struggles with a clumsy Holly Hunter meets Sissy Spacek fusion that often derails. Props to Mr. Lee for his bag ‘o hammers crazy that skillfully avoids too many histrionics and focuses on fear.
I enjoyed reading every detail about this film, especially the EPK provided by the filmmakers. Writer Ingraffia relates that part of his inspiration for the film taking place 50 years ago was the sexual repression of the 1960’s. What!? Societaly, perhaps but from a filmmaking standpoint, no way! This was the era of the greatest B/W sexploitation films ever created. The go-go music was groovy, the dancing was wild daddy-o and the sex was, o.k…it was weird. “Wages of Sin” provides a deeply troubling, mildly erotic while deeply neurotic journey into the darkest recesses of the psyche. Combining a subtle hint of horror/splatter films with a dash of ‘maniacs on the loose.’ An excellent fare from the indie minimalist genre that is rapidly unfolding, revealing a new wave of creativity.
Final Take – Collect your wages.