Dark film about a family of killers maintains its ironically disaffected tone throughout, thanks to a dead-on lead perf by Jake Muxworthy (“Waterborne”), a spare, nervy script by Kendall Delcambre and clear-eyed, fluid direction by indie helmer Morgan J. Freeman (“Hurricane Streets,” “Desert Blue”). Title refers to the matter-of-factly murderous philosophy of the Vanderslip clan’s paterfamilias (a monstrously convincing Tom Sizemore) — people are piggy banks: When you want money, you just break one open. Sociopathic hero’s voiceover narration provides nicely contrapuntal, stream-of-limited-consciousness accompaniment throughout. Sardonically deadpan road movie could develop a cult following on cable and DVD.
Brothers John (Muxworthy) and Michael (Gabriel Mann) travel around the country picking up people or breaking into their houses and murdering them for their money. How they got that way is explained by flashbacks to their often-absent father (Sizemore), who traditionally returned home bearing gifts, some with their previous owners’ names still on them, just as the boys’ homes often came furnished with previous owners bound and gagged in a closet, awaiting disposal (the camera follows as the kids casually open a door to pluck cash from the pockets of two such corpses-to-be).
Mann’s Michael radiates energy, lighting up like a tot at Christmas in his homicidal glee. He specializes in young women, and it is difficult to tell whether he enjoys screwing or killing them more, or perhaps one pleasure feeds the other. Quieter, more introverted John prefers not to get any closer to his victims than strictly necessary, and finds it difficult to keep his excitable bro from taking undue risks.
A sequence of events begins to disturb John’s surface calm. First, Michael balks at offing a girl, Archer (Kelli Garner), who may or may not pose a danger to them. As the necessity to kill her waxes and wanes with circumstances, John too discovers that he has a fondness for this woman and the unaffected, unexpected things she says and does. It is with uncharacteristic regret that he bashes her over the head with a wrench.
Violence in “Piggy Banks” largely transpires off-screen — but, chillingly, only barely off-screen, just beyond the edges of the frame-lines. Mayhem is further abstracted by John’s ongoing, voiceover self-examination. The unreliable narrator always stood as one of the joys of noir filmmaking, from Tom Neal’s self-delusional musings in “Detour” to William Holden’s autobiographical post-mortems in “Sunset Boulevard.” Here, John’s commentary haltingly denies, rationalizes and espouses the various stages of his nascent moral awakening as he decides it might be wrong to kill. It is under the apparently benevolent influence of his half-sister and incestuous soulmate Gertie (Lauren German) that he resolves to mend his ways. But the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and sis’s enlightened activism may be only a new twist on an old familial distortion.
“Piggy Banks” reps a worthy entry in the neo-noir sweepstakes and in the process delivers a slew of memorable turns by fresh, up-and-coming talents.
Tech credits are fine, Nancy Schreiber’s lensing subtly contrasting the cool blue, largely nighttime criminal world with a more warmly-hued, sunlit vision of redemption.