“Ratchet” is a neo-noir wannabe with too many screws loose. After a promising start, in which Tom Gilroy makes a strong impression as a “hot” Hollywood writer-director with severe writer’s block, John Johnson’s ambitious debut film fritters away the tension with languid pacing, contrived plot developments and low-voltage suspense. Theatrical life will be brief, though there’s hope in ancillaries.
Mostly set on strikingly photographed Nantucket Island, the film tackles some classic film-noir themes, with its displaced, troubled protagonist who finds himself drawn into a web of intrigue and murder, and its mysterious blond heroine who may or may not be trustworthy. But this kind of film demands a far sharper, more cutting style than the laid-back presentation Johnson provides. All too often the plot grinds to a halt for a long conversation, with dialogue that fails to sparkle.
Gilroy plays Elliot Callahan, who achieved superstar status when he wrote and directed the independently made hit thriller “Criminal Intent,” which contained an attention-grabbing scene involving a nail gun. But since then, Callahan, who has signed to do a film for a major studio and moved to New York to work on the screenplay, has been having problems of focus, not helped by the fact that total strangers accuse him of plagiarizing a famous Hong Kong actioner.
Having missed several deadlines, and with the studio’s attorneys hassling him , Callahan takes the advice of his agent and rents a beachside house on Nantucket to find the peace and quiet he needs to get the creative juices flowing. His encounters there include Catherine (Margaret Welsh), a foxy real estate agent who yearns for a more exciting life; Tim (Mitchell Lichtenstein), an old writer buddy; Tim’s sexy g.f., Julia (Nurit Koppel), a sculptor; and the seriously intense Henry Carver (Matthew Dixon), who’s written a screenplay he wants Callahan to read. Before long, Callahan suspects that Henry might be a serial killer writing about himself and that his screenplay is worth plagiarizing.
So far so good, but then Johnson literally drops the plot. Audience interest flags as turgid revelation follows turgid revelation, and Joaquin Baca-Asay’s too-gloomy camerawork obscures more than it reveals. Predictably, a nail gun features in one grimly sadistic sequence.
Gilroy’s performance is so charismatic that he deserves a chance to strut his stuff in a better picture. The rest of the cast are just along for the ride, which is a very slow one. Production values are all solid, with the most striking feature the stylishly original front and end credit titles, designed by Bureau NY.