Debuting director Adam Dubov sets out onto apparently familiar terrain, but “Dead Beat” keeps some intriguing cards up its sleeve. Limber indie outing co-produced by thesp Christopher Lambert should see a moderate share of theatrical action with young urbanites.
The pic — whose title will be changed for its release — looks at first glance like one more reckless teen romance built into another retro-chic, rites-of-passage movie. But the film tills fresh ground via its unforced humor and appealingly flip approach while it quietly sows a moody dark side.
Loosely based on a serial-killer case that some believe was an inspiration to Charles Manson, the film is set in Albuquerque in 1965 (Arizona locations stand in), offering an at-mospheric mix of wide open spaces, faded kitsch architecture and pastel suburbia.
The story of primping, limping womanizer Kit (Bruce Ramsay) is recounted by his adoring disciple Rudy (Balthazar Getty). A devout believer in the power of deceit, Kit employs makeup, hair dye and height-enhancing boots to achieve his Elvis-modeled looks, and uses tales of anything from terminal illness to a destitute family to score with his dates.
He meets a kindred dynamo in rebellious rich girl Kirsten (Natasha Gregson Wagner) and, as their romance goes into orbit, she demands hard evidence of his love. Obligingly, Kit confides that he murdered a local girl, a secret he earlier entrusted to Rudy, who treated it as another fabrication.
Kirsten uses the knowledge to increasingly tighten her hold on Kit. At the same time, she attempts to force Rudy out of the picture, thwarting his romantic progress with Donna (Meredith Salenger) by attributing sordid sexual practices to him.
Kit and Kirsten turn into short-fused time bombs, and as she spirals out of his reach, he’s forced to give in to murderous instincts.
Dubov’s direction juggles sweetly hokey romance with lean, mean edginess and a wry streak of malicious fun. Though the film sometimes feels like it can’t pin down which road it wants to travel, it remains engaging and avoids the contrived coolness of some of its big-budget brethren. Closing note is a minor weak link that feels somewhat tentative next to what’s come before.
Ramsay and Wagner make attractive, vigorous leads, eating up their scene-stealing roles (a little too greedily in the former’s case). Getty provides able support.
Offscreen contributions are strong all round, from Anton Sanko’s live-wire music to Nancy Schreiber’s camera, her astute eye for color and composition lending a slick visual panache that puts the thrifty but amply functional 1960s production design in a good light.