“Saturn” is a well-made but severely grim portrait of a young man trying to cope with an overload of emotional and psychological pressures. This Gotham-produced low-budgeter is far too bleak and lacking in “entertainment” value, even on a highbrow level, for a theatrical life of any note, but its sharp technical qualities and effectively sustained tone, however grim, should make it a serviceable calling card for first-time writer-director Rob Schmidt.
Obscurely titled pic shares the same exec producer and cinematographer with last year’s New York indie hit “Pi,” and the films do possess a similar intensity of focus and seriousness of purpose. But while “Pi” provided audiences with a key to its arcane universe, “Saturn,” despite its more overtly heartrending subject matter, is distant and, finally, off-putting in its relentlessly despairing approach to a depressing situation.
The brawny Drew (Scott Caan) is stuck caring for his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father (Leo Burmester) in their dingy Brooklyn loft. The older man, a former professor who can barely communicate, is so far gone that he needs his son to bathe him and change his diapers, and Drew does the best he can while still trying to maintain a presence at school in the hopes of becoming an engineer.
But the dark side beckons in the form of his old buddy Arturo (Anthony Ruivivar), who tries to lure him into the lucrative drug trade, and Sara (Mia Kirshner), a wild girl for whom he procures some drugs and with whom he’s drawn into the escape of a depraved physical relationship.
The dynamics of the opposing forces working on Drew are plausible enough, and Schmidt has tried to balance the primary and secondary factors that combine to lead the young man to the dreadful but comprehensible decision he takes at pic’s climax. Yet a number of problems prevent the drama from delivering what was no doubt intended.
The Sara interludes, which at least should have conveyed an intoxicating high , fall entirely flat, partly due to Kirshner’s unconvincing performance. Caan, who is bulked up to Ramboesque proportions, has presence but seems, on the evidence here, much more a physical actor than one prone to illuminate interior conditions, which is what the film could have used. And, in the end, “Saturn” feels like any number of other first works in that one senses a young talent trying to exorcise private demons rather than connect with an audience in an enlightening way.
However, on the basis of his filmmaking, Schmidt will undoubtedly be heard from again. Set almost entirely at night and with exteriors shot mostly in the streets of Brooklyn, pic sustains a delicate twilight-to-daybreak mood, which contributes to an ominous foreboding that dangerous, unseen forces lie lurking and ready to assault the leading characters at any moment. Lenser Matthew Libatique, who did an impressive job on “Pi,” accentuates this feeling with his soft visual backdropping and generally short depth of field. Gabriel Wrye’s taut editing and a mostly techno score also contribute to the film’s sense of precision.