A slow-burn thriller with rich Texas flavor, “Two Step” reps a promising feature debut for writer-director Alex R. Johnson. This character-driven picture takes its time marinating in quiet conversations and Austin atmosphere, making the sudden jolts of violence all the more shocking when they land. The combination of low budget, unconventional approach and solid but largely unknown cast will likely limit the pic’s theatrical engagements to niche play, but a cult following could be in the offing, and crime-movie aficionados will want to seek it out on any available platform.
There’s already something haunted about reserved college student James (Skyy Moore) when we meet him on the way to visit his elderly grandmother. He’s barely set foot in her house before she passes away, leaving him everything she has, including the modest home. With nowhere else to go and no friends in the area — he hails from El Paso, hundreds of miles away — James strikes up a friendship with kindly neighbor Dot (Beth Broderick), a no-nonsense ex-ballerina more than twice his age who knows her way around the local bar scene.
Meanwhile, lowlife grifter Webb (James Landry Hebert) is about to be released from prison, although it’s clear he’s anything but reformed. Webb’s current con of choice is cold-calling old folks and pretending to be a grandson in order to trick them into wiring money to the bank account he shares with g.f. Amy (Ashley Rae Spillers). As soon as he’s a free man, Webb makes a beeline for Amy, who isn’t so happy to see him considering the last time they were together, he broke her nose. (He claims it was an accident. It’s obvious it wasn’t.) She runs off with his money, leaving him in heavy debt to local boss Duane (Jason Douglas), who gives Webb two options: Pay up or get out of town.
A certain built-in suspense arises during the wait for Webb’s storyline to intersect with that of James and Dot, egged on by the menacing undertone of Andrew Kenny’s effective score. That doesn’t happen until around the halfway mark, when a desperate Webb starts tracking down former victims of his scam — including James’ late grandma — and a violent confrontation raises the stakes considerably. Until then, Johnson devotes time to developing the characters, especially loner James, free spirit Dot and live wire Webb — an emotional investment that pays off in the tension-filled third act.
“Two Step” is a thriller that lives or dies not on flashy setpieces or gory surprises, but on the relationships, or lack of relationships, between each of the key players. Even moments that feel familiar — Duane’s casual intimidation of Webb; the sight of one character tied to a chair as a hostage — become fresh and gripping in the context of the situations and Johnson’s frequently delicious dialogue. In that respect, the casting serves the material by allowing the mix of character actors and fresh faces room to disappear into their roles.
There’s not a bum performance in the bunch. Broderick (perhaps best known for her history of smallscreen work, including “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”) makes the most forceful impression early on as sassy Dot, a four-time divorcee possessing an untapped reserve of maternal warmth. She builds a tender and touching rapport with quietly captivating newcomer Moore, and their encounters are laced with sharp humor and a shared understanding of life’s tough breaks.
Hebert and Douglas occupy the opposite end of the moral spectrum, imbuing their crooked characters with varying degrees of macho bluster and unexpected vulnerability depending on the circumstances. It’s amusing to see hot-headed Webb reduced to a scared little boy opposite Duane in their first scene together, and Johnson later revisits the dynamic to great effect. Spillers strikes the right notes of faux innocence as the woman who comes between them.
Tech package is aces all around, especially the elegant compositions of d.p. Andy Lilien, precise cutting from Benjamin Moses Smith and Chris Terhune’s tense sound design. In addition to the score, indie rock frontman Kenny also contributes the closing-credits song “Long Time To Lose It,” which follows an abrupt ending sure to leave some viewers scratching their heads and others nodding in satisfaction.