A vivid, embracing tale of life on the edge, “Broken Vessels” is an assured first feature with potent commercial appeal. Focused on a pair of paramedics behind the wheel of an ambulance, the film skillfully careens through the incidental and dark humor of their lives and plows forward into the bleak personal terrain that comes with the job. One of the few genuine artistic hits of the L.A. Indie Fest (the film received the fest’s best picture prize), “Vessels” has sufficient high- octane quality to overcome the noisy, overcrowded specialized scene and carve out a respectable theatrical niche. Ancillary activity should also be considerably better than the current norm.
Recently arrived in Los Angeles from Pennsylvania, Tom (Jason London) lands a job with an ambulance company. He’s teamed with fleet vet Jimmy (Todd Field), seemingly unflappable but famous for going through a lot of partners. All Tom can initially see is his partner’s composure, which saves him from the embarrassment of tagging one crash site victim prematurely for the morgue.
While the opening section is antic, its hijinx have an underlying dark tone. Jimmy has a direct, if unorthodox, manner of dealing with danger. In fact, he appears to thrive in a pressure-cooker environment. When an injured man threatens to attack him on the way to the hospital, he deftly takes the pads of a fibulator to the man’s head and knocks him flat.
There’s no question that the proximity and stream of violence (and its aftermath) has its toll. Jimmy softens the rough edges with drugs and casual sex and Tom soon falls into a similar regimen. What’s so powerful about the script by Scott Ziehl, David Baer and John McMahon is that in addition to putting the lifestyle into perspective, it also subtly gets across the fact that the job attracts a particular character type and, they are compulsive, addict-prone personalities.
Recalling “Leaving Las Vegas,” the new film draws the audience in through seductive characters and humor. However, once one takes the bait, there’s no way to exit the rollercoaster ride for either the principals or the audience.
At the center of “Broken Vessels” are two exceptionally compelling performances by Field and London. Despite the outward flashiness of Jimmy, Field does nothing to pump up his role; it’s wonderfully nuanced work in which the most modest changes in shading wind up resonating as his dance on the edge of sanity and the law becomes complex and precarious. London works his boyish persona for all its worth and his slide from cute to sinister occurs with brillant ease.
The supporting cast is also consistently strong, including co-producer Roxana Zal and vet character actors James Hong and Patrick Cranshaw. However, the standout is Susan Traylor as Jimmy’s wigged out neighbor. She plays her part with all stops out and just short of the sort of comic parody that would have sent the picture off course.
Producer-turned-director Ziehl makes an impressive debut. The film has the confidence of a considerably more experienced hand. It’s bold without succumbing to unmotivated shock or surprise.
Despite its modest budget, tech credits are uniformly impressive. Particularly effective is the raw, in-your-face camerawork of Antonio Calvache, which provides a documentary reality to the scenes in the street and on the job. And without missing a beat, it segues into Dan-tesque visions as film gives way to drug-induced states that heighten in severity as the tale progresses.
The biggest quibble to be made about the film is its title. “Broken Vessels” doesn’t really capture its essence, and a distrib shrewd enough to acquire this left-field surprise might want to find a way to suitably rechristen it for the marketplace.