An exceedingly odd meeting of the minds (and bodies) occurs in “Quid Pro Quo,” a strikingly original and provocative first feature from scribe-helmer Carlos Brooks. Touching on one of New York’s weirder subcultures — perfectly mobile, able-bodied people with paralysis envy — this very funny two-hander has the wit to treat potentially offensive material with an offhand drollery that is immediately disarming, even as it builds a disturbing level of intimacy between its excellent leads, Nick Stahl and Vera Farmiga. Bizarro subject matter and minor-key execution will keep wider audiences at bay, but consider Brooks a talent to watch.
A detective story that morphs into a twisted romance, “Quid Pro Quo” is narrated by Gotham public radio personality Isaac Knott (Stahl), who’s been in a wheelchair since the car accident that killed his parents and deprived him of the use of his legs at age 8. With his wry wit (“If you’re wondering, yes, I can have sex — I just can’t catch a cab”) and utter lack of self-pity, Isaac would be ideal company even if he didn’t guide the audience into such intriguingly murky territory.
Tipped off about a secret group of paraplegic “wannabes,” some of whom have sought to induce paralysis via amputation and other means, Isaac smells a potential story and soon gets in touch with the mysterious Fiona (Farmiga, with a Veronica Lake hairdo). A conservator of artifacts and Chinese-culture enthusiast, Fiona turns out to be one strange cookie; Isaac is the first person she tells about her wheelchair, to which she wants to be confined forever.
But Fiona doesn’t spill her guts without a price, and the film’s title refers at least in part to the fair exchange of secrets between the two characters. Brooks’ sardonic screenplay yields one of the cinema’s more unique portraits of co-dependency, as Isaac and Fiona’s initial guardedness gives way to their mutual need to get inside each other’s heads (and, of course, their growing sexual attraction). Fascinating questions are raised along the way — not only why some people would want to paralyze themselves, but also why they might view their freedom as a form of paralysis.
The sly perversity of “Quid Pro Quo’s” setup — which takes an even odder turn when Isaac magically starts to regain feeling in his legs, while Fiona mulls her options — would keep a viewer watching even if the film completely derailed. It doesn’t, but given the pretzel-logic intrigue that precedes it, the film’s final revelation is arguably too pat, even psychologically reductive, although Brooks definitely has an impressive way with a red herring.
Lead thesps are beautifully matched, with Stahl’s imperturbable Isaac acting as the perfect straight-man foil to Farmiga’s neurotic, impassioned Fiona. One of their early dates, as Fiona tests out her wheelchair for the first time in public, reps a comic high point.
Lenser Michael McDonough amplifies the film’s detective-fiction undercurrents and dreamlike feel with a noirish, amber-glow lighting scheme. Tech package is decent.