As a cinematographer, if you spend the bulk of your career shooting classy big-budget productions for Hollywood heavyweights, it’s conceivable that you might occasionally get a B-movie hankering: Even gourmet chefs crave the sloppy pleasures of a Big Mac now and then. Janusz Kaminski gets the urge rarely, it seems, but when it strikes, he takes to the director’s chair. Back in 2000, Steven Spielberg’s trusty DP made an ignominious helming debut with “Lost Souls,” an incoherent occult horror that wasn’t even the tasty kind of trash. Two decades later, things haven’t overly improved with “American Dream,” the noble-sounding title of which does little to dignify the dingy exploitation exercise lurking below: a thriller in which the American pursuit of happiness is no match for the dogged chase given by ticked-off Russian mobsters.
The relative novelty of Kaminski’s attachment in this capacity superficially distinguishes “American Dream” from equivalent gray bales of VOD filler, as does the lingering clout of erstwhile “Game of Thrones” star Michiel Huisman — gritting his teeth and trying to find some human touch in a scuffed, sweaty tangle of genre tropes. Their names, however, scarcely render the project less anonymous. The drabness extends, most mystifyingly, to the smoggy aesthetic that Kaminski and his own cinematographer Keith Dunkerley have devised for proceedings: If there’s some flavor of the Los Angeles underbelly in its hard lighting and tan-on-brown palette, the film’s standard-issue framing and odd, yanking stabs of handheld movement wouldn’t cut much ice with Kaminski’s usual collaborators.
In the early going, at least, a lean screenplay by Duncan Brantley (“Leatherheads”) and Mark Wheaton offers glimmers of interest in its portrayal of Russian-American immigrant society working toward greater social and economic status across multiple generations — though these cultural specifics eventually give way to more generic surges of violent machismo. The film opens in Russia, with a gratuitously ugly prologue introducing wary young train passenger Ana (Agnieszka Grochowska), as she’s dragged from her carriage and sexually assaulted by two unnamed thugs.
Cut to five years later, and Ana has relocated to L.A., only to become, for her pains, a secondary figure in her boyfriend’s narrative: It’s not the last time, however, that her or another woman’s victimhood will shuffle the men’s story along. She’s dating Nicky (Huisman), a clean-cut property developer in the process of building an apartment complex with his best friend Scott (Luke Bracey). Both Americanized sons of hard-working Russian migrants, they jointly make for a handsome incarnation of the titular ideal — or would do, if they weren’t $700,000 short on funds, and unable to convince bank managers to help them out. Enter Yuri, an inquisitive wheeler-dealer they encounter at a community wedding, and the kind you’d know to give a wide berth even if he weren’t played by an oil-slicked Nick Stahl, with a psychotic leer visible from space.
When Yuri arranges for a seamy Bratva elder to hand over the money with nary a question asked, Nicky and Scott cautiously accept; when more above-board financing turns up, however, they stop the check. Turns out Yuri reacts to a canceled deal with much the same good grace that Alex Forrest accepted being ghosted in “Fatal Attraction”: Within days, the hapless entrepreneurs’ business, relationships and lives are on the line, as Yuri’s vengeful threats escalate in urgency and derangement. Embracing the mealy clichés of the script with open, tattooed arms, Stahl gives good crazy, but his wholly illogical character turns the dial from zero to way past 11 so quickly as to drain proceedings of tension altogether: Even in a skinny 84 minutes, there was surely room to tease the characters (and audience) more with the consequences of their dubious moral dive.
More than a few character markings and motivations appear to have gone AWOL en route to the screen, in fact: “American Dream” sporadically flirts with a non-linear structure, but just as often band-aids successive scenes together with little cumulative rhythm or anxiety. “You think I’ll waste time listening to two boys tell sad stories?” a mobster asks Nicky and Scott early on. Kaminski takes a similarly dour, no-nonsense approach to what could be a cheerfully all-nonsense story — as if stripping junk food of its fat — and this “American Dream” dies somewhere in the impasse.