As if to illustrate the hypothetical “So you think you’re having a bad day?,” Canadian thriller “Hammer” puts its characters through a Rube Goldbergian obstacle course of peril in the immediate hours after a hijacked drug deal. The pileup of disasters is such that this tale might easily have been spun as some kind of grotesque comedy. But writer-director Christian Sparkes’ second feature plays it straight, narrowly evading viewer disbelief via strong principal performances and sufficiently urgent execution.
The result isn’t a knockout, falling between the territories of crime meller and family drama without quite maximizing either element. But it works well enough in that middle ground, making for a succinct, well-crafted suspense exercise likely to satisfy most home viewers who find it via digital and VOD release as of June 5.
Will Patton’s usual authority is a big plus in the role of Stephen Davis, a working-class father who exudes a quietly firm if put-upon fortitude in a household it’s hinted has known too much strife. The latest point of contention is wife Karen’s (Vickie Papavs) agitating for a difficult, complaining grandparent to be moved from a nursing home into one of their adult sons’ vacated bedrooms, an idea Stephen refuses even to discuss. But all too soon they’ll have much worse crises to deal with.
Eldest child Chris (Mark O’Brien), an apparent ne’er-do-well who’s been cut off from communication with his parents for a while, is apparently getting up to trouble again. Despite being sober and duly employed, he’s called erstwhile partner in crime Adams (Ben Cotton) out of the blue, proposing some high-stakes drug trafficking for the first time in two years. Meeting on a rural road with Adams’ girlfriend Lori (Dayle McLeod) along for the ride, it’s an awkward reunion but a successful transaction that goes south when an apparent road accident encountered on the way back turns into an armed holdup. Though wounded in the fray, Adams realizes he’s been double-crossed, firing at Chris and Lori as they escape with both drugs and cash.
Only Chris makes it to town (Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, not its smaller, same-named Michigan sister city), where he’s spotted driving recklessly by errand-running Stephen. Dad quickly sees through his bloodied, panicked offspring’s jumble of fibs, sussing at least part of the in-progress emergency’s gist. Things immediately get worse as the two learn that an understandably enraged Adams has taken Chris’ little brother Jeremy (Connor Price) hostage pending return of his money, contraband, and main squeeze. All of which have been stashed somewhere in the surrounding vast cornfields, where even Chris may not be able to locate them again.
The constant escalation of danger in Sparkes’ script (from a story co-credited to Joel Thomas Hynes, who wrote the director’s prior feature, “Cast No Shadow”) often threatens to become overkill, particularly since its poker-faced presentation admits to no absurdity or even much gallows’ humor. Still, the film manages to maintain enough conviction to pull this hyperbolic scenario off. Embedded in the tale are reversals of character expectation — it’s hand-wringing Karen rather than gruff Stephen who emerges the unforgiving “tough love” parent, while “good son” Jeremy and perpetual screwup Chris aren’t quite what they appear — which demand sometimes-challenging leaps of viewer belief.
Fortunately, the impressive cast makes that doable. In particular, Patton lends his father figure a pained devotion that renders just about psychologically plausible straight-arrow Stephen’s willingness to violently flaunt the law under pressure. And O’Brien gradually reveals how Chris has already done a lot to redeem himself, even if appearances suggest the opposite. While “Hammer” (whose title is a bit of a mystery) may be too hectic in incident to feel particularly deep, its core interest in the bruising weight of familial expectations and disappointment is underlined to potent effect in a graceful, low-key fadeout.
With some additional shooting in Newfoundland, DP Mike McLaughlin’s widescreen imagery is handsome of both scenery and composition. Other design contributions are strong, including a score by Jeff Morrow that eschews straight suspense for a dissonant, nagging sense that fate is going to toy cruelly with these hapless lives no matter what.