Technically crude but dramatically riveting, "100 Proof" is an ultra-low-budget drama that packs a potent punch. Loosely based on an actual event that occurred in Lexington, Ky., more than a decade ago, pic is a white-trash tragedy brimming with local color and percolating with mounting dread. While certainly not for every taste, "100 Proof" could attract a cult following with canny marketing and fest exposure. Written and directed by Jeremy Horton, a Lexington librarian and theater director with no previous filmmaking experience, "100 Proof" follows two hard-bitten young women through the worst day of their lives.
Rae (Pamela Holden Stewart), a reedy cynic with a foul mouth and a short fuse, works with Carla (Tara Bellando), her more docile partner, at various dead-end jobs and petty crimes. Currently employed as caretakers for an elderly couple, they begin the day by taking money from the near-senile Arco (Jack Stubblefield Johnson). But before they can hitch a ride to the country store where the proprietor deals drugs, the women run into Rae’s abusive father (Jim Varney), who takes their money and tries to talk them into turning tricks for some good ol’ boys.
The day gets worse when, after they finally hitchhike to the country store, Carla overdoses on drugs. Rae tends to her friend — who, the pic hints, may also be her lover — but the experience leaves her even angrier and jumpier than before.
Rae and Carla wind up back at the home of the elderly couple. Sissy (Minnie Bates Yancey), Arco’s half-crazy wife, is sharp enough to realize the women have been stealing from them. But Rae is too far gone to refrain from swiping Arco’s pension check.
After that, Rae and Carla drag the old man along with them as they drive around town, looking for a place to cash the check. Others go along for the ride. Drinks and drugs are consumed. And then, in a moment of nihilistic rage, Rae lashes out with a loaded gun.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of “100 Proof” is the way Horton sustains interest and builds suspense during extended scenes of drunken, drug-addled squabbling. Pic often has the feel of a cinema-verite documentary as it follows Rae and Carla on their long day’s journey into hell. One thing leads to another with all the relentless logic of a vivid nightmare. When violence finally erupts, the mayhem — which Horton presents with effective restraint — is no less shocking for seeming so inevitable.
Horton has assembled a well-balanced mix of local talents and experienced film actors. Pamela Holden Stewart, heretofore best known for playing a frazzled cop in Hal Hartley’s “Amateur,” is nothing short of mesmerizing as Rae. She is especially impressive in her ability to convey her character’s frantic efforts to maintain her grip as everything around her spins increasingly out of control. Newcomer Tara Bellando is also persuasive as the malleable Carla.
But even Stewart and Bellando are briefly overshadowed by Jim Varney’s ferociously nasty cameo as Rae’s sleazy father. It’s hard to believe this is the same guy who’s gained fame as the doltish Ernest P. Worrell in TV commercials and low-budget comedies. More villainous character roles may be in his future.
Even at its best, “100 Proof” has the unmistakable look and feel of something made on a frayed-shoestring budget. Still, cinematographer Harold Jarboe manages some effective camera movement, particularly during the long tracking shot that begins the pic.
Call this one a diamond in the rough, or at least a shiny bit of jagged rhinestone, and you won’t be far off the mark.