Gritty, lower-depths verisimilitude is vividly sustained throughout "Cook County."

Gritty, lower-depths verisimilitude is vividly sustained throughout “Cook County,” writer-director David Pomes’ debut feature about a dysfunctional East Texas family torn asunder, and pushed to the brink, by crystal meth dealing and addiction. Despite a few continuity problems, this rough-edged, low-budget drama impresses with spot-on performances, perfect-pitch dialogue and an overall sense that something bad might happen at any moment, unless something worse happens first. Theatrical prospects doubtless will be limited by the grimness of the subject matter, but favorable reviews and buzz generated through fest exposure and blogosphere coverage could attract venturesome auds.

Anson Mount dominates the pic with his skittish, scary performance as Bump, a would-be drug kingpin who supplies meth throughout his rural county — and accelerates his vertiginous mood swings by sampling his own product.

Bump is so far gone that he doesn’t bother hiding his business, or his addiction, from his 6-year-old daughter, Deandra (Makenna Fitzsimmons). Abe (Ryan Donowho), Bump’s teenage nephew, tries his best to look out for Deandra, but the anxious young man also struggles to look out for himself: Having recently kicked his own habit, he finds it hard to stay straight while residing in a house with a meth lab in the kitchen.

Abe dares hope things will change for the better when Sonny (Xander Berkeley) — his father, Bump’s brother — returns after a lengthy, unexplained absence. Sonny claims he, too, has gone straight, and needs just a little time to earn enough money so he and Abe (and possibly Deandra) can have a second chance somewhere else. Trouble is, Sonny has a hidden agenda. And Bump has a loaded shotgun.

Without resorting to melodrama or caricature, Pomes persuasively renders the specifics of life, death and drug addiction in a rural Texas milieu. It’s a place where tweakers and dealers alike are good ol’ boys (and gals), and all the ingredients for crystal meth can be purchased at a convenience store where the owner is too clueless to know, or too cavalier to care.

Mount plays Bump as a ticking time bomb, always just one temper flare away from bloody mayhem. But the actor also provides effective shadings of character, so his expression often reveals a flurry of conflicting, contradictory emotions. This is especially true during a disquieting climactic scene in which Bump must decide what matters most, his daughter or his business.

Donowho and Berkeley develop an edgy give-and-take, suggesting their characters are bound not so much by family ties as by shared fear. Other supporting characters — including, briefly, John McClain and Yankie Grant as kindly relatives who provide brief sanctuary for Abe and Deandra — are well cast across the board.

A few transitional scenes are conspicuous by their absence. Auds will be left scratching their heads when, at one point, pic awkwardly lurches from a tense confrontation to a pleasant family outing without explaining how a character avoided what appeared to be certain death.

Even so, “Cook County” somehow manages to recover from its occasional stumbles. Handheld lensing by Brad Rushing effectively escalates the mounting dread as Bump nears the edge.

Cook County

Production

A Greenwood Films production. Produced by Anson Mount, David Pomes, Xander Berkeley, Thomas Bickham, Ryan Donowho. Executive producers, Rod Lurie, Michael Whalen, Rigo Fernandez. Directed, written by David Pomes.

Crew

Camera (color, Super 16), Brad Rushing; editor, Brann Edgens; music, Scott Szabo, the Rockabilly Orchestra; music supervisor, Randall Jamail; production designer, James Fowler; set decorators, Shayla Jacobs; Ruel "Roosta" Hill, Leila Lister; sound, Scott Szabo; assistant director, Ra-Ana Gilani. Reviewed at Nashville Film Festival (competing), April 23, 2008. (Also in SXSW, AFI Dallas film festivals.) Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Anson Mount, Xander Berkeley, Ryan Donowho, Polly Cole, Rutherford Cravens, Brandon Smith, Makenna Fitzsimmons, John McClain, Yankie Grant.

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