South of Heaven
Director - J.L. Vara
Cast - Shea Whigham, Jon Gries, Diora Baird
Country of Origin - USA
Discs - 1
MSRP - $19.95
Distributor - Synapse
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
The Film: 2/5
Now that he’s been discharged from the Navy all Roy Coop (Adam Nee) wants to do is visit his brother Dale (Aaron Nee), a washed-up boxer who never quite made a name for himself, and finish writing his novel, a little tome called “The Last Stand”. When he reaches his brother’s apartment he’s not greeted with a homecoming party. Two thugs dressed like vaudevillians (Jon Gries, Thomas Jay Ryan) show up, interrogate Roy about a missing girl, then proceed to beat him to a bloody pulp. Then a mysterious femme fatale named Veronica (Elina Lowensohn) enters Roy’s life and fucks his brains out, leaving him with a drained dick and a head full of unanswered questions. Meanwhile it turns out that dear old brother Dale is mixed up with Mad Dog Mantee (Shea Whigham), a dangerous criminal who would not be a man to mess with if not for the fact that every time he runs his mouth more than Joseph Biden. Mad Dog and Dale have kidnapped a girl who turns out to be the daughter of a powerful crime boss (George “The Animal” Steele”). In a classic (and extremely tired) case of mistaken identity the two vaudevillians think Roy is Dale, so no matter how many times Roy tells these idiots that they have him and his brother mixed up they continue to beat him up until his face looks like Belial from Basket Case. Then they burn his manuscript and force his face into the fire. Roy survives but now he’s pissed. Renaming himself “Nobody” Roy sets out on a mission of vengeance in order to save himself and his brother from the dark, long-winded forces that dwell outside the boundaries of morality.
I really enjoyed the film South of Heaven, and by that I mean the movie that was advertised on the DVD packaging. The actual movie, not so much. South of Heaven is what you might call a “film festival” movie: it’s designed to play in front of the crowds at events like Fantastic Fest and Cinevegas because after an onslaught of offbeat movies a movie like South of Heaven can easily be accepted despite its glaring flaws. Plus the distribution company’s marketing department can use the words “Official Selection” on all the print ads and trailers and make it look like the movie was, and still could be, a prestigious awards contender. It’s easy for adventurous moviegoers to fall into that trap; the independent film scene is just about the only place you can find truly original works of cinematic art these days, and South of Heaven comes complete with a strange veneer and a killer plot hook that fits nicely on the back of a DVD case right above the extra features list. But if you’re actually expecting the movie on the disc to be the same movie on the packaging you are in for the mother of all disappointments.
The movie is a jumbled mess of repetitive scenes and cloyingly artificial sets. South of Heaven desires to be taken seriously and the sets were doubtless designed to heighten the drama but that’s a bit difficult when there’s no drama to be found and the lifeless scenes are being played out on sets that look left over from a chintzy 1940’s B-western. You expect Roy Rogers to come riding along on Trigger singing “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” during the climax. There’s also some rear projection used on occasion but that didn’t bother me at all. The pacing of the movie is off: most of the scenes focus on Dale and Mad Dog and they run the longest, while Roy gets the shit end of the stick. In the majority of his scenes he’s getting a savage beating at the ends of a pair of overdressed morons and when it finally comes time for him to get his much-deserved revenge the movie is practically over. That’s the repetitive structure of the film working in full force; Dale and Roy are not either proactive or reactive characters, they’re inactive. Their various tormentors get the lion’s share of the dialogue and the action and it completely derails the already hackneyed story.
If the villains of South of Heaven were in any way memorable that would go a little way towards redeeming the movie, but sadly that is not the case. Top-billed Shea Whigham (Machete) gets to play the showiest character in the movie but his performance is lousy partly because the Mad Dog Mantee character is poorly conceived. He is supposed to be a vicious and intimidating criminal and yet most of Whigham’s screen time is eaten away by tiresome monologues and empty threats towards the weaker characters, including constantly testing the shaky loyalty of the subservient Dale. I can’t even imagine how this skinny twerp manages to put everyone around him on edge. Whigham is an interesting character actor who’s no stranger to playing lowlifes and bullies but the part he’s given is so ineptly-written that Mad Dog comes off as less of an effective villain and more of an abusive prick who gets away with whatever he wants because no one is strong enough to stand up to him.
The Nee brothers are both good in their respective parts but it’s Aaron who comes off the best because he has the more intriguing character. If the movie had focused on just Dale and not bothered with Roy at all it would have been a lot better. Jon Gries (Real Genius) and Thomas Jay Ryan (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) both give decent performances but their characters are really no different than Mad Dog in that their most intimidating quality is their ability to talk their victims to death. Elina Owenton (A Very Long Engagement) works fine as the femme fatale of the piece despite not having enough screen time to work as an effective character. Popping up in brief performances of varying quality are Diora Baird (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) as a sex object, Joe Unger (Road House) as a former Mad Dog associate, and pro wrestler George “The Animal” Steele (Ed Wood) as the mysterious crime lord “The Man”.
The only actor I was looking forward to seeing was the great Sy Richardson, who has been featured in some of my favorite movies like Repo Man and They Live. But even though the DVD packaging makes it look like Richardson has a major role in the film the actor only shows up for a scene so brief you’d miss if by blinking, and I don’t even recall his nameless character having any dialogue. South of Heaven just can’t stop breaking my heart.
South of Heaven may be a turd but at least it’s a nicely polished one. Synapse’s 1.78: 1 anamorphic widescreen transfer preserves the shot-on-35mm film feature’s look very well (good to see that not all low-budget indie flicks are being shot digitally yet). The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo soundtracks don’t get a workout but they do give some needed aural strength to the movie. No subtitles are included.
No matter what movie it is Synapse Films can usually be counted on to deliver a solid extras package (their Street Trash Meltdown Edition is one of the best 1980’s horror DVDs ever released), and for South of Heaven they haven’t failed. Kicking things are three excellent commentary tracks. Whereas one track would have been just fine the three we have here cover just about every aspect of the making of South of Heaven and then some, and despite my lack of interest in the movie after actually seeing it these commentaries complement the main feature excellently.
The first is a cast commentary featuring the Nees, Whigham, and Gries chatting it up about their acting experiences on the movie; the second is a filmmaker’s commentary with director Vara, cinematographer Darren Genet, and producers Brian Udovich and Jason Pollstein, covering the production of the film and the long hard road they took from conception to premiere; the final track is the odd man out here as it’s a critics’ commentary featuring online journalists Scott Weinberg of Cinematical, Todd Brown of Twitchfilm, and Devin Faraci of Badass Digest (and formerly C.H.U.D.). The critics talk about the movie they’re watching occasionally but the track focuses on the independent film scene in general and how South of Heaven fits into that scene. It’s an interesting commentary that I enjoyed listening to.
Finally we get three early short films by director J.L. Vara: Miserable Orphan (38 minutes), Azole Dkmuntch (28 minutes), and A Boy and His Fetus (15 minutes). Technically these shorts are well made but they’re mostly experimental in nature and often difficult to watch, much like South of Heaven.
South of Heaven works fantastic as a stylistic exercise but fails miserably as a narrative one. Watching this movie is enough to make one lose faith in independent cinema, and yet I hold out hope that in the future we get less movies like South of Heaven and more authentic cinematic visionaries emerge from the woodwork and their movies are the ones that get supported, and movies like South of Heaven get relegated to late night play on the Independent Film Channel, which is just the kind of ignoble fate it deserves.