A taut, modest and refreshingly clear-eyed indie thriller produced on a budget so low the screenwriter is listed as one of the caterers, “Dead Dogs” is a claustrophobic and involving genre exercise that demonstrates what can be done on a shoestring with a tight script, focused acting and intelligent staging. While not pretending to be any deeper than a vintage B picture, this resonant contempo film noir reps the true spirit of scrappy, committed and — here’s the kicker — smart regional filmmaking. A full fest dance card is in the offing, and hard-boiled distribs looking for the real deal will want to lie down with this no-dog dog.
Sad-eyed young security guard Tom Kale (Joe Reynolds) works the late shift at the Driftwood Inn, his only company desk clerk Gordon Trainor (John Durbin), from whom he’s learning about the intricacies of chess and classical music, and married maid Diane (Suzanne Carney), with whom he’s having a steamy yet seemingly perfunctory affair in whichever room is available. This pattern is disrupted by a phone call from wayward, swaggering brother Derek (Jay Underwood), who announces his imminent arrival with g.f. Carmen (Margot Demeter). This is the same Carmen who jilted Tom for Derek three long years ago.
Now getting by through knocking over remote convenience stores, before which the roguish pair kiss for luck, Derek and Carmen have a deleterious effect on Tom, persuading him to join them on a caper involving the motel’s safe and the long Fourth of July holiday. What looks to be an easy job is complicated by Gordon, Diane and the inevitable sibling rivalries that boil over at the worst possible moment.
“The past is a dead dog,” muses one of the trio on the futility of regret, and Todd Bulman’s understatedly chatty script, inspired by his rent-a-cop stint at the Grand Forks, N.D., Holiday Inn (where the film was shot), runs with such genre nuggets throughout. His savvy extends to telling details as well: Tom is pressured to resume his discarded smoking habit as events unfold, and a measure of his personality is an absurd bet with Gordon to eat nothing but grilled cheese sandwiches for a week — a wager he honors even when dining with others.
As befits time-honored genre codes, the heist itself pivots on such out-of-nowhere variables as Czech composer Joseph Suk’s “Asrael” pumped through a wayward walkie-talkie.
Newcomer Reynolds manages the not inconsiderable trick of making Tom both hangdog and dependable, a la Noah Wyle, while Derek’s hollow bluster is sold via a selflessly smarmy reading by Underwood, last seen as Sonny Bono in ABC’s “The Beat Goes On” biopic. Durbin’s unique mien and calibrated underplaying gives Gordon the precise measure of pathos required to balance the mix.
As the femmes fatales of the piece, Demeter is a tantalizingly contradictory cipher who labors over “Ultrahard” crossword puzzles when she’s not driving Derek’s getaway cars, while Carney, in a feature film debut following a recurring role on “ER,” makes the steamy most of the movie’s least-seen, but far from least important, character.
Making a distinctive feature film directing bow, Montana native and tube vet Clay Eide has made the decision to shoot handheld and in black-and-white pay off in spades, as d.p. Don Devine does yeoman’s service in the fluorescent glare of the motel’s cramped offices. Lenser brings an unforced expressionism to such important sequences as the brothers’ vaguely sinister midnight reunion around the empty swimming pool. Other tech credits enhance the effect, including David Augsburger’s shrewd editing, Alan Koshiyama’s evocative score and a sound design by Martin Jacob Lopez that belies any technical limitations.
One of those Amerindies realized with pluck, life savings and credit card debt ($75K total per filmmakers), “Dead Dogs” copped the juried American Independent Award at the Seattle festival, one of 10 in an uneven field tilted toward trivial, whiny angst. In that light, “Dogs” is a shining example for fledgling filmers of less (properly planned and judiciously honed) being so much better than what passes in today’s clogged market for more.