Another low-budget entry in the never-ending neo-noir sweepstakes, tyro feature helmer Tom Zuber’s “Lansdown” — winner of the Cinequest Fest’s juried Best First Feature Award — recycles familiar ideas, with just enough droll wit to score as a nifty normal-folk-doing-stupid-deadly-things comedy a la “Fargo.” His clever screenplay and well-tuned perfs aren’t matched by directorial finesse, however: Drab-looking indie’s lack of visual style or energy could hobble its chances at eking out a “Red Rock West”-style theatrical sleeper berth. Ancillary prospects are brighter, with Zuber and his cast of unknowns all earmarked as talents to watch.
First scene finds humorless suburban lawyer Jake (Paul Shields) getting the expected bad news from Gustaf (D.W. Warren), a scruffy ne’er-do-well he’s hired to spy on his wife. Not only has the inappropriately shirtless, cheerful snitch photographed Jake’s dominatrixy spouse Lexi (Jennifer Carlson) in the sack with current boytoy Pat (Chris Stewart) — he’s also tape-recorded their orgasmic howling, and made a copy for his own personal enjoyment.
Aflame with jealousy, but unwilling to pull the trigger himself, Jake asks Gustaf to snuff out Lexi’s unlucky lover. Gustaf demurs, referring Jake to shady Gendhi (Patrick Louis) with the assurance that the latter “kills people all the time.”
Gendhi, in turn, hires two thick-muscled, thickheaded brothers, g.f.-henpecked Hector (Chris Baran) and perpetually belligerent Benny (Marc Krinsky), as his henchmen. When trio show up at a construction site to off the offending youth, however, they err bigtime — not only is Pat late for work (as usual), but his very-much-present boss (John Mead) is armed and dangerous. Ensuing splatterfest leaves the moronic “amateur hit men” sibs with two corpses to dispose of, neither being the one they were after.
Nonetheless, Tweedledum & Tweedledumber demand payment from Jake, who decides to take matters into his own hands. Bodies pile up as all parties concerned pull one counterproductive maneuver after another.
Screenplay builds considerable sardonic merriment from the escalating mayhem. Criminal masterminds are in desperately short supply here — as in “Fargo” (as well as the Coens’ earlier “Blood Simple”), pic’s disreputable characters are a dim assortment of ex-cons sure to blunder their way back into the hoosegow if they don’t get themselves killed first.
Likewise, uptight suit Jake echoes William Macy’s clueless “Fargo” schemer, though as played by Shields he’s less pathetic middle-class loser than a yuppie control freak who takes himself waaaaay too seriously.
One weak character link is Lexi, who’s adequately played by Carlson but out of step with the amusingly outre personalities around her. She’s just a stock sexy bitch from Noirsville, her duplicitousness a genre no-brainer.
Otherwise, perfs are at once admirably restrained and ridiculous, a smart approach for figures who have nevered grasp that the joke’s on them.
If only “Lansdown’s” production package were as cannily handled as its script, cast and droll tone. While decently paced, pic (shot in New Jersey) evinces no sense of place, with minimally set-decorated interiors that suggest empty hotel rooms or offices were used. Lensing is blah, staging often indifferent, score dependent on routine synth suspense themes. Ending in particular could use a stronger visual or verbal punch line.