The debut feature of Francis Von Zerneck, "God's Lonely Man" is a stunner both for its technical assuredness and as a chilling saga of an off-kilter character who sets himself up as an urban vigilante. Unquestionably derivative of "Taxi Driver," the picture is crafted without cynicism or self-conscious homage. The violent nature of the story poses some commercial problems, but the craft and skill of the endeavor is never in question.

The debut feature of Francis Von Zerneck, “God’s Lonely Man” is a stunner both for its technical assuredness and as a chilling saga of an off-kilter character who sets himself up as an urban vigilante. Unquestionably derivative of “Taxi Driver,” the picture is crafted without cynicism or self-conscious homage. The violent nature of the story poses some commercial problems, but the craft and skill of the endeavor is never in question.

The picture could play well in specialized situations, fueled by the controversial nature of the piece. It’s likely to divide critics and apt to be confined to arthouse or cult screenings.

Ernest (Michael Wyle) is seemingly just another faceless marginal who’s landed in L.A. The manager of a porn video store, he’s obsessed with guns and favors routine over thinking and planning. He’s also hooked on cocaine, which has given him a poor perspective on himself and the society he inhabits.

The young man is drawn to the boss’s daughter (Justine Bateman). However, when he finally confesses his true feelings toward her, his awkward and crude manner gets him fired.

His frustration manifests itself in alternately hostile and kindly actions. He murders his pusher and befriends Christiane (Heather McComb), a teenager from a troubled family. He decides to rescue her from an inattentive mother and a sexually abusive stepfather.

The dramatic arc certainly mirrors the Martin Scorsese film more than just coincidentally. Save for a driver’s badge, he is the contemporary Travis Bickle, and Christiane shares the guile and energy of the teenage prostitute role that launched Jodie Foster’s mature career.

Still, the incidents have a unique stripe. Ernest not only liberates the teenager from her home, he sets out to find the girl’s missing younger sister and to inflict vengeance on the people who may have harmed her. The shocking resolution provides an unsettling discovery, a bloody aftermath and an ironic summation.

Though “God’s Lonely Man” begins on a false note, it soon settles into the odd relationship between Ernest and Christiane. It’s a surprisingly tender pairing, even if it elicits much of the film’s violent strain.

Wyle is an oddly charismatic type. He conveys both the dangerous edge and the childlike warmth of his character in a mesmerizing performance. McComb embodies a disarming naivete that keeps the relationship from descending into the lurid. The performances are uniformly strong, creating an unsettling reality to the proceedings.

Technically it’s a knockout. Beautifully photographed and cut to emphasize tension, it’s a seamless piece that doesn’t draw attention to its fluid style. Writer/director Von Zerneck has developed material he seems acutely attuned to for both its dramatic and emotional force. One anxiously waits to see what he’ll turn his attention to next.

God's Lonely Man

(Urban drama -- Color)

Production

A St. Francis of Assisi production. Produced by Randy Sutter, Danielle Von Zerneck. Executive producers, Frank Von Zerneck, Robert Sertner. Directed, written by Francis Von Zerneck.

Crew

Camera (CFI), Dennis Smith; editor, Lawrence Maddox; music, James Fearnley; production design, Katie Lipsitt; costume design, Shauna Silver; sound (Dolby), Marty Kasparian; casting, Fern Orenstein. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 23, 1996. Running time: 99 min.

With

Ernest Rackman ... Michael Wyle Christiane Birsh ... Heather McComb Meradith ... Justine Bateman Polo ... Paul Dooley Niki Birsh ... Roxana Zal Rick ... Wallace Langham Keith ... Kieran Mulroney Steven Mitchell ... Tom Towles Clarence ... J.C. Quinn

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