Heads or Tails
Johnny (Tao Hildebrand) and Nina (Laura Bach) are quite the happily married couple. He’s a smalltime drug dealer with an unhealthy addiction to the goods. She’s a former-prostitute turned actress. Or so she told him. Johnny has big dreams of his own. Nina has plans of her own too. This can’t go right, can it?
No Right Turn is a tough nut to crack. On the one hand, it’s a low budget indie film that manages on more than one level to rise above other efforts of its kind. On the other hand, it’s not without flaws. And those flaws do bring the overall viewing experience down a notch. Which is a bit of a shame, as it’s still a fine film. Johnny & Nina are the leading couple. Johnny delivers drugs to customers using a pizza delivery service, run by his boss Pedro (Sami Darr), as a cover. Teddy (Lars Lippert), a solitary play writer with an obsession for old train wagons, is one of his customers. Monella (Sira Stampe), a tormented artist/painter, plays a key role in most events of the film, though she remains wrapped in a veil of mystery. While this does make her the most intriguing link in the plot, we sadly learn too little about her past to make her more interesting. Johnny’s convinced he’s going places and is determined to buy Pedro’s pizza/drug delivery place to make it all happen. Or so his drug-fueled delusions dictate him. Nina plays the struggling actress part for her husband, but is actually still fucking behind his back for money. Or drugs. She also wants to go places, but since Johnny is too busy snorting his nose into oblivion, she starts planning an agenda of her own.
The main problem with No Right Turn lies in the narrative structure. I’m all for films who break the rules of convention, but when you do so, you have to make sure your alternative works as well or, preferably, better. Most parts of the screenplay for No Right Turn are based on the ’cause & effect’ principle, but it’s not properly enough developed. The dosage & spreading of events are a bit off. It all boils down to pacing, really, and a decent pace is what the first hour of the film lacks. Writer/director David Noel Bourke does build in a couple clever and obvious set-ups very early in the film (even before we start to learn more about the characters). We’re shown Johnny’s locker with the gun and the briefcase. Bourke also links Teddy and Nina together already in the first scene where both of them are introduced. But then he devotes too much time developing the characters, and takes too long for the set-ups to pay off. He builds in those characters of the two thugs in the bar, who serve the sole purpose of Nina and Monella hooking up in one scene (involving a rape). Fair enough (although the two girls might as well have met for the first time elsewhere – I had preferred it to be in a less explicit context, in a subtle environment more related to Monella’s persona), but then Bourke brings back those two thugs in scenes that are rather irrelevant to the plot. Or one could argue said scenes show how Johnny is wasting his time (and life). But there are enough scenes to make that clear already. One of them depicts Johnny as the type of character we all came across at some point in our lives… That one drunk guy you met in a bar one time. He rambles on about his plans, how he’s going to do this or that. Then, lets’ say about a month later, you happen to walk into that same bar, and there he is again, drunk off his feet, babbling about even bigger plans now. If you’ve ever been in a situation like that, it suddenly makes this surreal, crazy film a lot more recognisable… and funny too!
But regardless those moments of recognisable character trademarks & fun anecdotes, it takes a while to get the taste of things, as during the first half the film bounces from one character to another. And after 30 minutes, still no shape or form of the story, and that’s a bit of a problem for any film. Yes, we have scenes with Teddy and some with Monella. Their drawings do make peculiar characters out of them, but we actually learn very little about them. The only thing you, as a viewer, can grab onto, is the knowledge that through the story, all characters will start to interact at some point. Now don’t get me wrong, I was thankful to actually spend time with Johnny and Nina, since they make up for an interesting pair. But with four main characters, equally important to the plot near the end, it’s only Johnny and Nina that are our means of getting there. There, meaning the one-hour benchmark. Then, the movie finally shifts into gear and you don’t really have time to wonder, ponder and question things anymore. Until the very end, that is (I’ll get to that in a minute).
Yes, flaws, every movie has them. But not a lot of low budget indie flicks have actually enough merits to outweigh them. And No Right Turn does. The acting is more solid than in most other productions of this level. At times, the inexperience of the actors and actresses shows a bit (some small accents are noticable too, though I would argue that this makes the film feel more realistic). Nonetheless, they are all well chosen for their parts and each does bring their own qualities to the role. Most importantly, the whole cast is on par with each other and their performances are an even match. That’s good casting and this works in favor of the film. All four main characters are interesting, to say the least, and really stand out. Both thanks to the performances and Bourke‘s character drawings, they stick with you, leaving a memorable impression after the film has ended. The dialogues are a bit of a hit & miss deal. Not that it gets bad at any point, just that some parts work better than others. Good lines like Teddy saying “Never judge a man by what you sell him” and the conversation Nina & Monella have in the bathtub, after they’ve had sex (What? Yes, I’ll get to that later too). The parts where Johnny tells the story his dad told him once (about the desert, pussy and water) and Teddy went on about how his uncle and mother died, just didn’t seem to pay off as they should have. Or maybe it was just because Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta weren’t the ones saying it. Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes it felt like I was listening to something the director wrote, instead of something the characters were saying. At any rate, not that the dialogues were badly written; they managed to entertain.
Before we go any further, let’s examine the nature of the beast. What kind of film are we looking at here? A pulpy neo-noir drama mystery? A black comedy crime fantasy? A trashy joyful suspense thriller? Point is, David Noel Bourke did not make it easy on himself. Calling it a suspense film, in my opinion, would be the thing most out of place. There’s simply very little suspense to be felt in this film and it only really touches base with the thriller genre in the final act. Perhaps leave out joyful too, and all the rest you can pretty much find equally divided present. And yes, it knows a thing or two about being sleazy and, well, plain wrong (in the intended, funny way, that is). So all in all, plenty of stuff to enjoy. The more classic structures to be found in No Right Turn, come straight from the film noir genre, and this is where the script owes its complexity to. It’s also fun spotting the typical trademarks from the genre. From little things, like the use of an old typewriter, to characters like the femme fatale and themes like greed, betrayal & redemption. Now we come to the mystery/fantasy aspect. Call it a fairy-tale, if you will, I had a little difficulties interpreting the significance of it.
Essentially – and I could only conclude this after the very end of the film – I felt a ‘what’s real and what’s not real’ approach (Was that really an angel bringing her the necklace? It was that little girl we forgot about? Was that real what Monella saw in the bathtub at the end? Fantasy or her thinking back?). Real or not aside, incorporating fantasy (or a fairy-tale?) into a film of this type, felt like dangerous ground to walk on for any filmmaker. The events going on in the city and the almost serene mystery (or fantasy?) surrounding Monella’s character, form a blatant contrast in No Right Turn. Solely as a contrast, it obviously works. As a balance, not all too effectively. And as a synergy, it simply doesn’t. Not that the fantasy elements an sich don’t work. They provide welcome visuals & atmosphere, and they help to dress the character of Monella. The fact that they are so out of sync with the rest of the film, could have provided a very interesting angle to the material. If it had been explained in some way, that is. While the film has a nice closing scene (that sort of comes full circle with the way it opens), we are only left with… confusion (there, that very end I was going to get to in a minute). Maybe there was a point to it all, but sadly I missed it. Perhaps the point was to provoke thinking about it? Those not devoided of all badness got their justice served while Monella (the innocent?) managed to free herself from personal demons instead? I needed a little more to go on here…
David Noel Bourke‘s visual language is certainly one of his stronger assets at this point. Most of the framing & angles feel very spontaneous in some scenes, while more poetically staged in others. At times it does show a borderline case of young filmmaker’s expressionism, but Bourke manages to keep things balanced and never goes beyond this point. Cinematographer Eric Witzgall brings great qualities to this film, making it once again rise above the norm, occasionally even side-stepping into the realm of arthouse films. Equal credit goes to Bourke for determining a suitable look & feel for the film. A mix of kitsch with bright neon-like cholor schemes, high in contrast, soothing sepia tones, angelic white and comforting brown & yellow tints, all appliable to their respective characters & locations. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film made with so little means, putting so much heart & thought in choice of locations, set design & lighting.
If you’ve stuck with me so far, you already understood that some aspects of No Right Turn stand out while others leave a lesser impression. But there are three other things that stuck with me during and after the film… The sex. The drug-(ab)use. And the music. Bourke smears out sexual acts bordering on the depraved at first, and then comes back around presenting us a brief, rather unexpected, lesbian sex scene (I told you I’d get to this later). The scene is far from anything sleazy, but instead shot with taste, making up for a beautiful, sensual love scene. Nicely photographed and arousing, accompanied by music that fitted the scene (followed by the bath tub conversation I mentioned earlier, the ‘point of no return’ in the movie’s plot, actually). The drug use in this film is exaggerated and becomes slightly hilarious at times. I can’t imagine any member of this film’s target audience, not being amused by it. Evidently, a film of this nature often flirts with music and songs, and in No Right Turn it perfectly enhances its indie-vibe. A good score from Jacob Moth and good songs from lesser known artists; a soundtrack I wouldn’t mind popping into my cd-player every now and then. As to be expected, a film like this also features violence, and the rules of the genre dictate it can burst out at any given moment. And it’s not any different in No Right Turn. These moments are not outrageously violent, nor are there numerous incidents. The film didn’t need more of it, really, but these moments could have packed a better punch. For instance, Nina’s rape scene didn’t feel nauseating enough to sustain an impact and Johnny’s beating act in the toilets fell short thoroughly. Other, briefer acts of violence, worked much better (Monella’s blow to Johnny’s head with the guitar and Teddy getting his fingers shot off). They came more as a surprise, serving a better impact on the viewer.
So what all can we conclude? No Right Turn hits the mark on some levels and misfires on others. But it’s certainly not a bad viewing experience. It’s an eclectic smorgasbord of styles and substances, slightly less exciting than it could have been. It’s also an original and refreshing mixture of familiar elements fom both contemporary and classic filmmaking. Include some sporadic witty pop culture references (e.g. Johnny spoofing Tina Turner‘s “What’s Love Got To Do With It”). And we have a strange piece of (pulp) fiction that’s just a bit too offbeat for its own good. Quite the stew, when you look at it… The fantasy elements almost echo a rougher shaped sort of sensitivity of the kind you can also find in Kim Ki-Duk‘s mystery films (that’s about as honest a compliment I can give). The larger part of the mix is made up of Tarantino-esque violence, early Gregg Araki‘s sexual pervertions, Guy Ritchie‘s crime charicatures and Blake Edward‘s particular film noir touches. But No Right Turn feels at times as if the parts itself are better than the sum of them all. Either make a poetic mystery film and tone down the craziness, or make a crazy & pulpy film rooted more in reality. That’s basically what I felt at the end of the ride. Not disappointed, but all mixed up. Perhaps the exact outcome No Right Turn was going for all along?
As a sophomore full length effort from an independent writer/director, No Right Turn can be considered a triumph. Comparing it to the sources that influenced it, however, I can’t see David Noel Bourke playing with the big boys just yet. I see a filmmaker showing us enthusiasm, creativity and a lot of potential, but there’s still some work & practice to be done. A director on his way to bigger and better things, so to speak. Bourke has talent, let there be no doubt, but his next film needs to be tighter. You could still praise this low budget film because it feels like an offbeat indie masterpiece, sure, and then see if you won’t stand corrected any time soon. I choose to say David Noel Bourke‘s risky No Right Turn dares to challenge the viewer, and I consider it a better compliment (pardon my vanity). Not many films come along that inspire you to actually think about the craft of (low budget) filmmaking. No Right Turn is one of those that does. For that, I am grateful.
In the end, No Right Turn is what independent filmmaking is all about: pushing boundaries & exceeding limitations. And you can only admire this film for doing so. Now, if anybody should ask me how probable it would be that he or she is going to like this film, I’d tell them to toss a coin and call heads or tails on it. They’ll have a 50% chance of liking it; pretty much the most probable odds. Right, so I have to wrap this up with something… As a bonus thought, I will list some of the films that, for one reason or another, just randomly flashed through my head during my viewing of No Right Turn… (1994), (1995), (1996), (2002), (1998), (2007) and (2005). Like I said, some of them, not all. Now go watch No Right Turn and see what you make of it.
Vist Last Exit Productions – Click logo:
Postcard Collection – Click to enlarge:
Powered by Hackadelic Sliding Notes 1.6.4