Intriguingly balanced between moody grimness and keenly observed sympathy, William R. Pace’s debut feature, “Charming Billy,” aims ambitiously high in its dramatization of how a mild-mannered, all-American guy devolves into a mass murderer. Maintaining a strong grip on this chamber drama, Pace displays notable cinematic and storytelling craft as he tries to put together the pieces of Billy’s splintered personality, yet without offering any pat, socio-cultural explanations for how a nice guy goes homicidal. Lack of known indie thesp names, to say nothing of material’s relentlessly tragic and clinical quality, will necessarily limit pic’s appeal to select fests, where it deserves attention as an example of solid filmmaking on a limited budget.
Michael Hayden won best actor honors at AFI/L.A. Fest for his bracing, courageous perf as Billy, and it is the thesp’s thorough immersion in a profoundly difficult character that goes a long way toward making pic a compelling watch.
Nevertheless, “Charming Billy” is harmed by a moral dilemma that looms large from the opening moments: Rather than show Billy firing at innocents from his vantage point at the top of a rural water tower, filmmakers opt to keep sniper’s identity a mystery while showing victims fired upon through his point of view.
This kind of visual identification with an unknown killer is a misjudged attempt at shock value, and runs at odds with the film’s generally sober and composed aesthetic.
Impressively, however, Pace ably uses the killing spree as a trigger in itself for Billy to flash back on the events leading him to the water tower.
Transitions are achieved with artful aplomb, as when Billy recalls a dreamy childhood episode with a laundry lady (Oksana Fedunyszyn), then shifts to the white sheets in a commercial laundry, where the young man quietly demands for a job. He only slightly hides his shame at being seen in his new lowly occupation by old pal Duane (Tim Decker), and freezes in his thoughts trying to explain to Duane why he never went on to college.
Billy’s extraordinary outburst of violence is the end result of what is revealed as a model of the American man who leads a life of quiet desperation. Wife Linda (Sally Murphy) has decided it’s time to have a baby, but Billy feels insecure even with two jobs, including one at a video store.
He’s perpetually brow-beaten and teased by his father (Chelcie Ross), whose testiness contrasts with his laconic grandfather (Tony Mockus), who is Billy’s only true friend.
Drama reaches an uncommon depth in a bracing flashback scene in which Billy as a child is told by his chagrined father how he nearly committed suicide following the crib death of his firstborn child, thus establishing a rising tension of doom that some audiences will find chilling and others will find nearly unbearable.
Sense of the tragic is always kept just this side of excessive, even when the grandfather keels over from a stroke and Billy’s identity as the killer is revealed.
Pace patiently allows the flashback scenes to play out until he brings the story up to present, and Billy’s killing spree, which stunningly begins not at the water tower, but in his own and his parents’ homes. Suspense is effectively handled during the final water tower sequence, but this picture of doom has only one possible, unhappy ending.
Hayden, a vet thesp of considerable stage credits, handles explosive role with marvelous subtlety, often expressing more with silent glances and looks than through the occasionally obvious dialogue.
Scenes with Ross and Mockus are especially memorable for their textured expression of men unable to articulate their building anger. Staging of killing spree is memorably abstract and almost absurd, stirring up complex reactions, while best tech work is from editors Tom Roninella and James P. Mann. David Barkley’s richly moody music is about as good as it gets in indie films.