A small slice of Texas Noir
Now here’s something that’s right in my wheelhouse: a pulpy film noir. Even better: a pulpy film noir set in my home state of Texas. We Gotta Get Out of This Place, the debut effort from brothers Simon and Zeke Hawkins, makes a case on why you shouldn’t mess with the Lone Star State.
No, this isn’t an environmental noir on the dangers of littering, but it does go to show that Texas has a criminal underbelly that is far from spotless.
The opening scene, set in a Whataburger (a Texas fast food favorite), declares its love for hard-boiled writer Jim Thompson, the man responsible for such novels as The Getaway, The Killer Inside Me, and my personal favorite, The Grifters. An Oklahoman that set most of his novels in Texas, Thompson once said that there are thirty-two ways to write a story, but there’s only one plot: things are not what they seem.
This statement is brought up in a little aside by Sue (Mackenzie Davis), a book-smart lass who loves to read mysteries, to Bobby (Jeremy Allen White), a not-so-smart guy, as the conversation switches gears from being about the correct vernacular for southern cooking (is it still Bacon & Eggs if there’s only one egg?) to a discussion about attending college and getting out of their small, cotton-producing Texas town.
Judging how these two act around one another you could easily mistake them for being a couple. Then Sue’s boyfriend, BJ (Logan Huffman), also Bobby’s best friend, scoots in beside her and takes over the conversation by suggesting they get wild and crazy in Corpus Christi. Unbeknownst to the others, BJ has ripped off their boss, Giff (Mark Pellgrino), stealing money from the work safe. Money that, as it turns out, belongs to local gangster “Big Red.” This singular act of lawlessness would in turn cause blood to be spilled and loyalties to be tested. If Sue and Bobby want to get out of their hodunk town, they’ll have to take part in a heist (along with BJ), a job that neither is fully prepared to pull off.
We Gotta Get Out of This Place works as well as it does in large part because of its setting. Shot in Taft, TX, in early spring, the Hawkins brothers emphasize the desolateness of the land with its lack of farming crops. The community is near decay barely clinging on to the local cotton industry. Those who have read the writing on the wall have already made their way to the closest big city. Bobby and Sue want the same, though the same can’t be said for BJ, who is willing to screw over his girlfriend, who he suspects is sleeping with his best friend, so they can all be miserable together.
The love triangle that unfurls over the course of We Gotta Get Out of This Place spells doom for all parties. Sue has the determination to do more with herself than just work in a job that has her wearing oil-covered overalls. Bobby means well enough but lacks the smarts. Which means he’s perfect for being a film noir hero. As for BJ we can pretty much peg his character the moment he slides in next to Sue at the Whataburger. A boisterous fellow who can be a prick at times, BJ spells trouble.
With this being the first film by Simon and Zeke Hawkins it’s understandable if the direction lacks certain finesse. Thankfully, the brothers are benefitted by some talented actors and a good, if not predictable, script from first-timer Dutch Southern. Southern must be on the cusp of being a genre writer to know, because his next project (with producer Adi Shankar, who also worked on Dredd and The Grey) is the female answer to The Expendables, with Katee Sackhoff and Gina Carano, and rumored talent like Linda Hamilton and Pam Grier.
The biggest highlight for performances goes to Mark Pellegrino as Griff. As the heavy in this Texas Noir, he brings the quips to go along with his deadly bravado. Not bad for a guy who once tangled with Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon 3 on his way to being a “Blonde Treehorn Thug” in The Big Lebowski. Jeremy Allen White as Bobby looked to be a familiar face, and then I remembered he was the emasculated son of Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts in the god-awful Movie 43. Also looking like he could pass for Alex Winter’s younger brother White has good chemistry with Mackenzie Davis; both have a grounded quality about them, as two young lovers getting involved in a situation with no easy way out.
If there’s one problem with the film is that the narrative tries to be too smart for its own good in the late proceedings with character monologues that try to explain why he/she did what he/she did. This quibble aside, We Gotta Get Out of This Place is still a nice slice of Texas pulp noir that owns up to its Jim Thompson inspirations. Hopefully, it will play beyond its festival programming, because it’s a good little thriller that needs to find an audience.
Director(s): Simon and Zeke Hawkins
Writer(s): Dutch Southern
Notable Cast: Jeremy Allen White, Mackenzie Davis, Logan Huffman, Mark Pellegrino, William Devane, Jon Gries
Tags: Fantastic Fest, Fantastic Fest 2013