PARK CITY, Utah–“Public Access” represents a disturbing, dramatically cloudy , technically proficient feature debut from young helmer Bryan Singer. Co-winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, this very low-budget study of malaise lurking beneath the tranquil surface of a typical small American town is serious-minded and bounces around some provocative ideas, but is vague about such important matters as key story points, motivation and overriding theme. Commercial prospects look very iffy, although this will clearly lead to further work for its director.
Odd tale concerns a mysterious stranger who comes to town and stirs up no end of trouble in the sleepy community of Brewster. Handsome, flinty and disconcertingly creepy, Whiley Pritcher (Ron Marquette) takes a room in a small boarding house run by the grizzled former mayor (Burt Williams) and immediately takes air time on the local public access channel, where he launches a call-in show dubbed “Our Town” and poses the simple question, “What’s wrong with Brewster?”
After initial gossipy exchanges, the nature of the calls becomes increasingly nasty, serious and political, and Whiley becomes an immediate local celebrity. While beginning a romance with sincere librarian Rachel (Dina Brooks), Whiley takes some heat from other locals for getting involved in matters he knows nothing about, and openly sides with the current and corrupt mayor when he is accused by a malcontent of selling the town down the river without anyone realizing it.
Polite, smiling and affable in public, Whiley allows neither other characters nor the audience behind his steely persona — he’s a man with no known background, psychology or motivation. He’s a cipher onto which the viewer can ascribe any attributes he or she imagines, although it comes as no surprise when this clean-cut man with an uptight, almost military bearing begins taking people’s lives.
What Singer and his co-scenarists Christopher McQuarrie and Michael Feit Dougan seem to be getting at is some sort of critique of Reagan-era greed, hypocrisy and anti-humanism, as well as a commentary on the power of the media and its ability to distract the public from real issues with its attractive surfaces.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers haven’t been able to articulate their views with much clarity.
Dark, purposeful and hardened, Ron Marquette possesses a physical allure that itself contributes to the film’s intentions, but neither he nor Singer are able to open a door more than a crack into the mysterious impulses driving the picture.
Technically, the production is impressive, especially considering the $ 250, 000 budget and 18-day schedule. Individual sequences are very well staged, shot and edited, the “Blue Velvet”-like mood of a small town not being what it seems is nicely conveyed, and confrontation scenes carry a fair measure of tension.
On the other hand, music played at the beginning and end is unduly sappy — even if it was intended as irony, it comes off as banal.