Nick Gomez goes arty in “illtown,” to provocative if mixed effect. In this stylistic antithesis of his debut feature, “Laws of Gravity,” Gomez maintains his fascination with misfits and outcasts in the criminal underworld, but serves them up this time in a dreamlike state festooned with considerations of religious redemption, philosophical righteousness and the inability to escape the consequences of past actions. This ambitious, accomplished but flawed outing will spark critical debate, pro and con, which could translate into some business on the specialized circuit, but mainstream auds will most likely feel left out in the cold.
In many respects, this haunting and haunted look at Miami drug dealers and their circle reps a major stride for Gomez, whose first film and second, “New Jersey Drive,” presented street life from a harsh, curb-level p.o.v. Although the action on display here is, if anything, more violent than in those films, the style is soft, reflective and calculated. The characters speak as if in a trance and move as if underwater; Gomez’s control of the unusual tone is so tight that the effect proves hypnotic for a good part of the picture, but when his moves are misjudged, as in key sections of the late going, the consequences are serious.
In complex fashion, Gomez constructs a tale of betrayal and revenge among a group of young drug dealers. Dante (Michael Rapaport), Micky (Lili Taylor) and Cisco (Kevin Corrigan) are old pros at the game in their mid-20s. They’ve become comfortable, even yuppified, using teenagers to peddle pre-packaged smack to trendy nightclubbers, all under the protection of a corrupt cop (Paul Schulze). Everything is so cozy that Dante and Micky are thinking of settling down and having a baby.
But the long arm of past malfeasance is reaching out to drive Dante back to heroin and upset the group’s stable world. In elliptical fashion, Gomez reveals that their former partner and wildman friend Gabriel (Adam Trese) is getting out of prison and assembling a particularly vicious crew of adolescent thugs to take over the turf of those he believes set him up some years back.
It’s an oft-told tale, of friendship betrayed, vengeance sought and dominant figures who have gone a little soft being challenged by even more ruthless upstarts. The difference here is entirely in the telling, which lays things out in a narratively coherent manner but leaves open the possibility that a great deal of the action is dream, fantasy or conjecture.
Gomez achieves this via a number of stylistic gambits that, when they work, generate an intriguing ambiguity and, when they don’t, seem variously pretentious, misguided and embarrassing. For starters, the entire story is told in flashback, which itself is punctuated with carefully selected snippets of the characters’ pasts. When Gabriel appears, he is slowly faded into scenes, as if a ghost is materializing in the lives of the others. And because of the unrealistic details of their staging, some of the climactic confrontations could be taken as fantasy or wishful thinking on the characters’ parts. The picture is dense enough to accommodate any of these interpretations, so deciding which might be the correct one is likely meant to be unimportant.
Eventually, the portentousness of the handling becomes a bit weighty for the basically grungy material at hand, and Dante and Micky’s “normal” aspirations, however believable, begin to seem faintly banal, even ludicrous, in the dramatic context of their extreme personal histories.
But certain sequences are brilliantly atmospheric and evocative, such as a mute, heady scene of hallucinatory foreboding in which Micky goes to check out what’s happening outside their club; an unexpectedly moving monologue in which Cisco reveals what happened to his one true love; and several passages of abrupt , shocking violence, much of it perpetrated by punks barely past puberty who make the cast of “Kids” look like charter members of the Mickey Mouse Club.
So if Gomez hasn’t maintained a perfect grip on his complex tone and storytelling methods, he certainly reveals a new side to his talents. He has been aided greatly by Jim Denault’s dreamy, roving camerawork, sharp contributions by editor Tracy Granger and production designer Susan Bolles, and a mood-drenching score by Brian Keane.
Despite their strong indie credentials, leads Rapaport and Taylor actually create less compelling characters than do Corrigan, excellent as the third wheel in their operation, and Trese, whose leading-man good looks slowly reveal a terrifyingly ruthless nihilism. Schulze puts a memorable spin on his role of a cop who has completely rationalized his despicable behavior.