Definitely offbeat, if distasteful in its focus on cruel mind games played for the hell of it.

Revealing everything we’ve seen so far to be a narrative ruse can be a genius trick when played once or even twice. Simon Arthur’s debut feature, “Silver Tongues” (which expands upon his short) plays that card so incessantly, however, that the whole enterprise eventually seems meaningless. Definitely offbeat, if somewhat distasteful in its focus on cruel mind games played for the hell of it, this quasi-suspenser may attract some fests but will be tough to place commercially.

We meet middle-aged couple Gerry (Lee Tergesen) and Joan (Enid Graham) as they accidentally (or so it seems) befriend a honeymooning duo, Alex (Tate Ellington) and Rachel (Emily Meade), who at first appear to be pic’s real protagonists. Over dinner, the older pair, apparent swingers, subtly undermine the younger couple’s mutual trust, then leave them with a parting sting.

This sets the pattern: Itinerant Gerry and Joan drive around New England finding strangers to play vicious head games with, including a foreign-born reverend (Portia), a senile man at a rest home (Harvey Evans), and finally a suspicious policewoman (Rosa Arredondo). In the few glimpses we get of the couple when they are (perhaps) not role-playing, it seems they’re embroiled in their own game of control, with Gerry as sadistic master.

Neither particularly scary or insightful, pic acquires a sour flavor from being based around the script’s cleverness at creating ways to locate and manipulate the victims’ most vulnerable points. When at the end there’s a tiny hint of explanation as to why the principals might feel driven to do what they do, it’s shrug-inducing rather than revelatory, underlining the sense that “Silver Tongue” is a crafty but mean-spirited, rather hollow stunt.

Well packaged and acted (Graham in particular gets to run an emotional gantlet), pic features long stretches of dialogue — setpieces that would be at home in plays by such modern-day theater-of-cruelty specialists as Neil La Bute and Martin McDonagh — which are kept from stasis by nimble editing and Joshua Silfen’s thoughtful widescreen photography.

Silver Tongues

Production

A Stick! Pictures presentation. Produced by Jared Moshe, Leda Nornang. Co-producer, Jared Trimble. Directed, written by Simon Arthur.

Crew

Camera (color, HD, widescreen), Joshua Silfen; editors, Frank Reynolds, Todd Holmes; music, Enis Rotthoff; production designers, Brian Rzepka, Kaet McAnneny; art director, Nicholas Tong; costume designer, Astrid Brucker; sound, Rob Hubbard; assistant directors, Jared Trimble, Tom Kelly; casting, Sig De Miguel, Steve Vincent. Reviewed at Slamdance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 23, 2011. Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Lee Tergesen, Enid Graham, Tate Ellington, Emily Meade, Harvey Evans, Portia, Adam Lefevre, Rosa Arredondo.

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