Deep Texas noir and angst roil “Broke Sky,” an exceptional example of American regional indie filmmaking that switches tones as nimbly as a two-stepping dancer. Director-cinematographer-editor Thomas A. Callaway’s pic begins on a ghoulishly jaunty note and then audaciously shifts gears into a powerful noir involving dead bodies and perversions that one-up John Dahl at his best. SXSW preem and DancesWithFilms top prize make this contempo Western one of the most eligible in the indie marketplace, with theatrical and vid prospects likely to get a boost from careful handling.
Crusty, cynical Earl (Joe Unger) and nice, naive Bucky (Will Wallace) have what must be one of the world’s lousiest jobs: roadkill cleanup in sun-scorched west Texas. Montage of a typical workday cleverly blends the job’s almost unbelievably grim and gross nature with the sheer excitement of film editing. It’s a foretaste of things to come in a film distinguished not only by vet lenser Calloway’s starkly beautiful cinematography, but his kinetic, razor-sharp cutting.
Bucky is trying to hold off on making babies with wife Becky (Barbara Chisholm) until they move out of their forlorn trailer home, and shows Earl the secret of his dubious birth-control method. This, plus some amusing business involving a new high-tech cleanup truck that threatens their livelihood, steers the first act into a comedic vein, but with a well-grounded sense of character. Section even manages an outrageous scene, involving a horrific accidental death, that suggests no bad event is out of the realm of possibility.
A gal in Earl’s sights, vagabond Tess (Jamielyn Kane), is picked up on the side of the road during work hours, and dropped off at Broke Sky Bridge. Seemingly incidental, the scene comes back to haunt after Bucky and Earl hatch a plan to work overtime and prevent a layoff. A request from the area’s official hermit, Rufus (Bruce Glover), to check his well for dead varmints sparks a stunning dramatic switch.
What follows is classic noir stuff, bedecked with corpses, murky motives, shadowy figures looking through windows and, most of all, Earl’s stern insistence that they not report a dead body to the authorities. Storytelling is sure-handed, revealing character impulses and hidden nooks and crannies, but “Broke Sky” doesn’t rely on storytelling alone. With each narrative turn, Callaway and his team build cinematic tension through fiercer and fiercer editing strategies and an invisible shift from daytime sunlight to nighttime gloom. Pic may be distinctively indie in all respects, but it firmly respects the manly, classical Hollywood tradition of Raoul Walsh and Anthony Mann.
Given that pic was filmed over an extended period of time, Calloway’s actors deliver remarkably sustained performances. Wallace’s Bucky never quite loses his innocent qualities, but as he relives a terrible childhood experience (emerging as nightmares, and examined in an intense third-act revelation), a reservoir of buried emotions surfaces.
By contrast, Unger’s superbly realized Earl sheds his surly but likeable exterior to reveal a man at war with himself. The always vivid Glover packs a great deal into his few onscreen minutes as Rufus, who looks like a close cousin of some of the worst human creatures in Rob Zombie’s pics. Chisholm nicely handles a character who at first appears to be stereotypical trailer trash, and emerges as someone with real dreams of her own.
Tech work in all departments is several strides above the usual indie norm, buffed by Callaway’s stunning hat trick, John Perdichi’s humor-laced production design and a strong atmospheric score by Kristopher Carter, Michael McCuistion and Lolita Ritmanis.