Thursday, December 17, 2009

Just the Two of Us: The Last Lullaby

The quiet film is more and more becoming a lost art form. What do I mean by a quiet film? A film that doesn't pierce the eardrums with cacophonous sound effects, certainly. A film not filled with loud explosions and crashes, definitely. But while both of these rudimentary definitions qualify that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about films that spend as much time looking at their characters as listening to them. The Last Lullaby (2009), directed by Jeffrey Goodman and written by Max Allen Collins and Peter Biegan based on Collins' short story A Matter of Principal, is such a film. It's a film that explores its lead characters primarily by observation, a rarity in these days of overwritten screenplays that lay too much on the table verbally giving the viewer less chance to catch up on their own. Remember all the talk back in 2007 about the opening 20 minutes of There Will be Blood and how amazing it was that there was little to no dialogue? I felt then about that as I do now, which is to say there shouldn't have been so much amazement. It shouldn't shock us when a visual medium decides to tell its story and explore its characters visually. The Last Lullaby tells its story in whispers and eavesdrops, in glances and hidden stares. And it's all the stronger because of it.

The story of The Last Lullaby is one not unfamiliar to most viewers of film noir. A retired hitman is assigned a job to kill a woman and ends up compromising his position by falling for her. As with most noirs the story itself doesn't matter as much as the characters. Whether it's The Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past or Chinatown, the idea of the hired gun or detective falling for the woman is an old one but one that a good director can infuse with originality if he knows on what to focus.

Tom Sizemore plays the retired hitman Price, a man who can't sleep and wanders the town at night, visiting 24 hour convenience stores to pick up milk or a soda or... well, it doesn't matter. He's just looking for something to do and in one of those visits he finds it in the form of a couple of lowlifes he quickly deduces have kidnapped a woman that they're holding for ransom. Why not take them out of the equation and get the ransom money himself? From here the story of Price slowly unfolds as he takes over the kidnapping that eventually leads him to a job where he will be asked to kill a woman named Sarah, a woman who doesn't seem guilty of anything but, like any noir femme fatale, may be hiding so much more.

Sizemore and Sasha Alexander as Sarah work well together and Alexander is quite good as Sarah but this is Price's story and Sizemore plays him to understated perfection. Tom Sizemore has been around as a character actor since the eighties but shows his film-carrying mettle with his lead here. He keeps Price hidden for the most part but shows just enough to keep the audience interested. His Price is shy, reclusive and withdrawn and yet confident, assured and headstrong when put in danger's way. He connects with his target Sarah because she seems, at least on the surface, to be the same way. And while they both tell each other their stories don't expect long expository scenes between the two because for the most part they are simply together; sitting, swimming, driving, walking. In a climax that will profoundly change both of their lives Price says a mere five words, practically whispered, to a silent Sarah before the sound of a car starting takes us away.

All of this could have been a rather dry affair indeed if not for the combined talents of writers Collins and Biegan and director Goodman. The writing is contained, personable and mercifully free of the excesses of the overly clever rejoinder usually employed in such films but director Jeffrey Goodman deserves most of the credit. He keeps the camera's eye observant, never invasive. The film never becomes about what the camera is doing but what the characters are doing. And in employing a very subtle and yes, quiet, musical score (by Ben Lovett) he moves everything into a trance-like state for most of the film. Neither Price nor Sarah can sleep and wander the world at night, a world that is muted in color and sound to the point where we finally notice there's almost no one else in the film. Their world is uninhabited, as if stranded on a desert island in the middle of America, and Goodman exploits this to great effect until we reach a climax in which each character seems to be standing alone on a vast plain, both emotionally and physically. The Last Lullaby occupies the space between thriller and noir and brings both together on its own quiet and confident terms.