The post-apocalyptic road to redemption
While a sudden widescaled viral outbreak is roaming the country, Charlie (Joe Belknap) finds himself separated miles away from his girlfriend Samantha (Mary Lindberg). In an attempt to reunite with her, he joins a handful of survivors traveling the desolate landscapes. Their ultimate goal is to reach Wausau, Wisconsin, where Charlie hopes to find his girlfriend.
I very much prefer to know as little possible when going into a movie. Not only about the plot, but whatever coming from critics and fans praising any film. Since ‘Dead Weight’ is the debut feature of two independent filmmakers, avoiding reading to much into it could have been very easy. However, given some of the people involved in this production, I already caught wind of it while the film was still being shot. Not long after completion, the first articles about ‘Dead Weight’ started popping up online. Inevitably, I read some of them. The reviews I happened to stumble upon, had viewers raving about the film, pretty much labeling it as one of the most original zombie movie in ages. I quickly stopped reading into it. This film had to be good, that’s all I needed to know.
A couple of months later – almost a year ago now – a good friend secured a copy of the 2-disc DVD edition of ‘Dead Weight’ for me. Eager with anticipation, I popped it in. Ready to be…. well, I didn’t really know what to expect exactly, but given what I had heard about it so far, I expected to be thoroughly taken by it. 90 Minutes later, how did my first viewing of the film went down? …I was underwhelmed. Plain and simple. Much like curiosity killed the cat, it somewhat killed my first time viewing experience of ‘Dead Weight’. If I hadn’t read beforehand about how great this film was, how solid the acting, how much else there was to be so stellar about this debut feature, then I surely would not have felt slightly disappointed after first watching in it.
But because of this, I also instantly knew I had to give ‘Dead Weight’ a rewatch at some point. Now, after a year or so, I sat myself down and rewatched not only the film but along with it the second disc filled with (amongst other things) the 105-minutes-long documentary ’685 Miles To Wausau: The Making of Dead Weight’. And what I had hoped for, happened. Not only did ‘Dead Weight’ become a better film than I once thought it was, I also appreciate a lot more now what directing duo Adam Bartlett and John Pata (and the whole crew for that matter) accomplished here. Given the little means and very low budget they had, they certainly exceeded their limitations. Not only that, but the story idea is good and the screenplay offers a pretty innovative narrative: while on the one hand we have a storyline set in present day being told chronologically (Charlie’s journey towards Wausau), this is all intercut with flashbacks (of the life Charlie and Samantha used to have) which are told in reverse. And the intertwining of both plotlines serves a purpose, since the movie’s ending will take place in the town were Charlie and Samantha first met. Always much appreciated when writers put some thought into their narratives.
So in the course of 2011, before my second viewing of ‘Dead Weight’, I did read a couple more articles about the film, and I got thoroughly annoyed over certain reviewers calling it a “zombie movie”. ‘Dead Weight’ is not a zombie movie, period. Not even because it deals with ‘infected people’ instead, but because the actual film isn’t about a virus turning humans into crazies at all. It uses the idea of a widespread viral outbreak as a backdrop. A means to create a hostile setting in which the actual story takes place and the characters evolve. This is a film about people working together, turning on each other, losing their humanity or fighting hard to keep it. And above all, it’s about a man’s emotional journey in which he has got to come to terms with his past. A journey that will ultimately bring him redemption or his own demise. ‘Dead Weight’ is definitely a genre film, mixing drama and horror. And when horror rears its ugly head in the film, it’s our human nature that’s responsible for it. Some people have even called it a “romance story” and I can see where they’re coming from. But even if the flashback storyline contains some cute scenes, I’d rather describe it as the decay of a romance. Works better thinking of it that way, since irrefutably the film’s strength lies in its darker side, the forceful bleakness of the present day story set in a near hopeless environment. If I were to label the film anything, I’d probably go for a post-apocalyptic roadmovie drama. On foot. With occasional violent outbursts. Something like that.
Pata and Bartlett took some chances and showed some balls putting a protagonist like Charlie on paper. Charlie is a difficult character to root for. In the present day (apocalyptic) storyline it becomes clear that he’s emotionally unstable, given the immoral decisions he makes and showing signs of violent behavior. But in the flashback (romance) story, he also showcases signs of an immature character, given the way he sometimes interacts with his girlfriend. Pata and Bartlett took a clever approach when writing and developing Charlie’s character, since none of his flaws are evident from the start. They only really start to surface in the second half of the film. When it comes to Joe Belknap playing Charlie, he makes a decent effort, but with this being a very demanding part to play, he also not always hits the mark. For some reason, on a couple of moments when he’s at his best, he reminded me of Aaron Paul (as Jesse Pinkman in ‘Breaking Bad’). On lesser moments, Belknap‘s performance turns a bit awkward at times. Yet it kind of suits his character.
Mary Lindberg gives a fair counterweight performance as his girlfriend Samantha. Meaning that she also makes a decent effort and has her moments, but sometimes the chemistry between the two seems a bit off balance. Without going much further into the whole cast – because they all pull their weight – I’ll just mention the two actors that stand out the most. Aaron Christensen playing Thomas, the voice of reason of the traveling companions, if you will. His character is the only one capable of making firm decisions and Christensen nails down the part with precision. The other character that shows some strength of will, is Meredith, played by Michelle Courvais. Her part requires to show off a slightly wider range of emotions than the other characters and she does so in a believable manner. In all honesty, I expected no less from her, since I had previously seen her in ‘The Landlord’ (2009), being pretty much the only actress in the whole film capable of showing her potential. Good to see her now acting in a better film and working with better directors.
It goes pretty much for the whole cast and crew that on some occasions their lack of experience and limited resources result in a lesser moment here and there (both on a technical and creative level), but make no mistake about it: this here was a talented and spirited bunch of people working hard on a decent first full length feature film that ultimately surpassed everyone’s expectations. Since ‘Dead Weight’ is essentially about the characters as opposed to being an adventurous story, the word “epic” might be a bit misplaced, but nonetheless Pata and Bartlett delivered a film more epic than you’d imagine. Playing a huge part in accomplishing this, is director of photography Travis Auclair. Opting between static framing and handheld camera movements when called for, Auclair also splendidly captured the desolate feel of the snow-covered Wisconsin landscapes.
Pata edited the whole picture with a steady hand, never breaking that slower pace the film has, very much needed to strengthen the events unfolding. Add to that Derrick Carey‘s meticulous color grading skills, and we have a film that very much looks and feels more expensive than the budget it was made on. And since we’re stacking up the praises here, let’s continue with the one aspect of ‘Dead Weight’ that’s completely flawless: Nicholas Elert‘s musical score. Subtle yet adequately present and very consistent, Elert‘s mixture of electric guitar and piano soundscapes always lend the right vibe to any scene they’re used in. I’d even go so far as to say his score helps create a more unique atmosphere for the whole film.
I’ll wrap it up by saying what has already been said before: ‘Dead Weight’ is a remarkable debut feature and it has earned its praises in the world of indie-horror, rightfully so. There’s independent filmmaking and then there’s independent filmmaking. Pata and Bartlett, with their cast & crew, are clearly in the second camp, showing promise, know-how and a lot of potential. And they deserve the opportunity at going bigger and better with their next project. As for me, I’m glad I gave this movie a second chance. If it weren’t for this rewatch, I would have never been able to say that Pata & Bartlett‘s ‘Dead Weight’ would make up for a perfect double bill with John Hillcoat‘s ‘The Road’ (2009). One made with no budget, the other with a big budget. Both equally good films.