A son’s break from his cockfighting father’s brutal ways forms the emotional undercurrent that runs through “The Grey,” but the sometimes hyper-real atmospherics in this Deep South tale prove considerably more resonant than the familiar dramatic elements. Pic reps an interesting launch for filmmaking partners Shane Dax Taylor (as tyro helmer and co-scribe) and vet thesp Mark Boone Junior (as co-leading actor, producer and co-scribe), who show a strong interest in character, including a preference for improv over explicitly written scenes. When plot takes over, pic is less confident, but that won’t lessen widespread fest interest or ancillary pickup — especially given helming prize for Taylor in world preem unspooling at the Santa Barbara fest.
Jake Cantrell (Boone Junior), who operates a cock farm, is a gruff father to 12-year-old Sonny (John Quertermous) and husband to housewife Lily (Catherine Kellner). Early domestic scenes amid a portentous backwoods setting give the viewer the sense of eavesdropping, as Jake gets ready to win yet another cockfight tourney and Lily expresses her desire that Sonny not devote his life to Jake’s all-consuming passion.
Joining his dad on the road to go to the contest, and tenderly caring for their prize bird known as the Grey (since Jake forbids any pet names for his fighting cocks), Quertermous’ Sonny becomes a fascinating study of a boy poised on the verge of manhood as well as on a moral precipice, his expressions of uncertainty betraying a young mind forming its own sense of right and wrong. Boone Junior (most recently memorable in “Memento”) invests Jake with the air of an uneducated man who has nevertheless mastered his chosen craft, and who can dispense affection and wrath in equal measure.Action at the cockfighting arena is observed with a docu-realism, reinforced by the filmmakers’ wise decision to fix no judgments on what some call a sport and others call animal abuse. Even in the introduction of additional characters who eventually play crucial roles, such as Jake’s ex-alcoholic brother-in-law Homer (Jake LaBotz), who is supposed to handle spectators’ bets and constantly clashes with Jake; the local sheriff (Max Perlich, somewhat miscast); and an elderly cockfighter (Richard Ross), the line between complete naturalism and staged event is impressively blurred. The cockfighting carnage, however, is softened by careful editing and too many slo-mo shots. Jake’s downfall starts when Homer and Sonny catch him cuddling up with Courtney (Jesse Rae), a spectator. Sonny somehow winds up in charge of the final high-stakes round, which he loses, much to Jake’s disgust. This leads to a drunken and bitter brawl at home, with Jake bolting for a rendezvous with Courtney, and a nasty ruckus with both her and the pursuing sheriff, with whom Courtney had attended the cockfight.
Lily (and the aud) learns that Sonny and Homer had fixed the final contest, nabbing earnings behind Jake’s back, but by this point in the suddenly plot-heavy film, melodrama and unlikely twists have pushed things in a much less promising direction. To Taylor’s and Boone Junior’s credit, the hint of a happy ending is snuffed out by tragedy.
Production support matches the cast’s commitment to realism (including actors handling the birds in the dusty arena), with standout, crisp lensing by Marcel Cabrera.