In tyro helmer-scribe Allen Blumberg’s dynamic black-and-white political thriller, “Ghosts of the Heartland,” set at the height of McCarthyism, racism, corruption and paranoia run rampant through 1952 small-town America. Unlike the sleek, high-contrast B&W look of arty period reconstructions like “Good Night, and Good Luck,” Blumberg opts for a sleazy, fleshy immediacy reminiscent of Sam Fuller. Although nervy and fluid during action scenes, the pic bogs down elsewhere, mainly due to its wooden lead thesp. Opening May 22 at Gotham’s Quad, “Ghosts” will fade quickly, but nonetheless reps a kinetic take on a little-explored period with an intriguing ethnic twist.
Chinese-American reporter Roland Lu (Phil Moon) returns from the big city to his hometown in search of the story that will win him the Pulitzer Prize. Millville has changed in his absence. The town’s corrupt mayor, Frank Dugan (Michael Santoro), who also runs the local newspaper, has used the Korean War to stir up hatred against the indigenous Chinese population and drive them out of their jobs.
Roland digs up dirt on a secret land-grabbing conspiracy that evicted local Indians 20 years previously. He exploits this past scandal to thwart an ingenious new plan to dispossess the Chinese, joining forces with a barmaid, a closeted gay and an Indian in full tribal regalia. Dugan, threatened with exposure, moves to wipe out the evidence in well-staged, violent action scenes.
Santoro’s villainous Dugan commands the screen, a fascinating power-driven blend of populism, bigotry and self-interest. If the rest of the cast registered as compellingly as Santoro, what reads as a half-didactic study of racism would come alive as a shadowy ambivalent exploration of ethnic, professional and sexual identity in Blumberg’s blunt but forceful script.
Scenes between Dugan and his secret Chinese squeeze (Karen Tsen Lee) come off as fully engaged, well acted noir setpieces, in marked contrast with the bland exchanges between the square-jawed hero and g.f. Liz (Rosanne Ma).
Still, as characters move stealthily through dark alleys, run each other down on deserted streets, strangle repentant cohorts or bleed from tomahawk wounds, the pic intermittently attests to the power of genre to embody matters of consequence.