In its best moments, “Snake Skin Jacket” is a sharp little slice of American indie filmmaking. Alternately satirical and psychologically probing, pic makes the most of its ultra-low budget and isn’t afraid to take a shot at the indie-staple scenario of the kinky couple who corrupt the seemingly straight-arrow white-collar drone. Lacking marquee names and not audacious or original enough to ring up a domestic theatrical outlet, pic could please international fest auds eager for offbeat Stateside Roeg-ian hijinx, and dress up the erotic-suspenser shelves on vid racks.
Patrick (Silas Cooper) appears to be a tightly wound banker, but in fact, he’s a tightly wound bank robber. Steadily plodding along for years with a scheme that defrauds thousands of his bank’s customers of a few cents a month, Patrick has amassed a tidy sum that serves to cushion retirement for his senile father, Albert (Spencer Scofield), and indulge Patrick’s passion for historic movie garb, such as the famous titular frock once worn by Brando in Tennessee Williams’ “The Fugitive Kind.”
That jacket and the literary figure behind its creation are clues to the twisted intentions of pic’s co-writer and first-time feature director, Norman Gerard. It turns out that Patrick’s co-conspirator in his criminal enterprise is his mother, Margaret (Patricia Place), and his secret yearning to wear movie memorabilia is only a veneer covering deeper and lustier proclivities.
Mimicking Jimmy Stewart’s peeping-Tom turn in “Rear Window,” Patrick spies a homicide across the courtyard from his cloistered apartment. The killer is a gleefully sadistic dandy, Zack (Rupert Green), who figures more prominently in Patrick’s life when he moves into the neighborhood with the fetching Deena (Jennifer Starr). Initially, Patrick avoids dealing with Zack’s criminality because he fears his bank scheme might unravel under police scrutiny, even as a mere witness to someone else’s crime.
His hesitancy is finally broken down by Deena’s charms, but following venerable noir conventions, Deena is as ruthless and manipulative as they come. Drawing him into an off-kilter menage a trois of petty crime and lightweight debauchery, Deena and Zack try mightily to loosen up Patrick’s screws. Eventually, Zack disappears for a stint in the slammer and Deena and Patrick get a chance for some heated lovemaking and lighthearted cross-dressing.
Unbeknownst to Patrick, his main connection to star garb, local fence and restaurateur Gaz (Josef Pilato), has cooked up a plot to rip off Patrick’s prized clothes collection. Along the way to the traditional crime-pic double-cross and botched-heist denouement, clothes and blood are shed and the mild-mannered banker turns out to be tougher and randier than he or his playmates imagined.
“Jacket” works best when it’s sending up the guerrilla-filmmaking strictures of its minuscule budget. Eight-millimeter footage is effectively turned into computer videophone encounters, and filters skew voyeuristic surveillance shots. Gerard gets loose, spry performances out of his cast of unknowns and a colorful, loopy villain from action film vet Pilato, who turned up in “Pulp Fiction” as Dean Martin’s look-alike. Gerard’s stage roots — he directed the debut production of Los Angeles’ acclaimed East-West Players three decades ago — aid him in turning a slight trifle into an oddly compelling, if uneven, confection.
The plot doesn’t always add up its parts, some scenes are borderline amateurish in execution, and the erotic pairings lapse into Zalman King territory, but touches like a danger-fraught twilight ballet between Zack and Patrick on an L.A. rooftop show there’s a lot of heart beneath pic’s eccentric surface. Cleverly manipulated public-domain tunes boost the atmosphere, and low-key, largely naturalistic lensing by Robert Bennett helps keep “Jacket” from slipping into the swamp of faceless indie erotic thrillers.