The Riot Act


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Riot Act
"Despite a noteworthy effort from Lauren Sweetser as the daughter, it simply lacks passion."

Reportedly based on a real life murder which took place in the King Opera House in Van Buren, Arkansas in 1903, The Riot Act is a story about the pursuit of justice and revenge in a small town where to be known - or unknown - is everything. It opens with a murder - a doctor shooting his daughter's actor lover - but the bulk of the action takes place two years later when the doctor, who runs the local theatre in his spare time, hires a Vaudevillian troupe to provide the locals with entertainment. Among them, concealing her identity with a series of masks, is the daughter, looking for a chance to settle the score.

It's not much of a disguise and the film struggles with this conceit - you will struggle to believe that only one person would recognise her, and that not the father who saw her every day of her life. Then again, he's distracted. Despite enjoying the prestige that the theatre brings him, he contrives to limit his time there. He doesn't feel safe. He is, literally, a haunted man.

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One of the intriguing things to emerge from the US' melange of cultures and tendency to forget its deep history is an obsession with ghost stories, most notably local legends. They seem to fill a folkloric gap, bringing people together in appreciation of the uncanny and reinforcing moral boundaries.. With this in mind, it's perhaps easier to accept that an experienced, middle aged physician might seriously countenance the notion that he was being stalked by the spectre of the man he killed. He keeps seeing a figure, dressed in the same clothes, watching him. Who else could it be?

The answer isn't really very complicated. This is a film that relies for its twists on withholding information rather than casting it in a new light, but it doesn't keep its secrets for too long, preferring to develop psychological drama. There's lots of potential there and the actors are all competent enough. The problem is that it just never catches fire the way it should. Director Devon Parks is understandably cautious about the potential for it to descend into melodrama but takes restraint too far so we never really get a sense of the intensity of emotion that might be expected in this situation. Despite a noteworthy effort from Lauren Sweetser as the daughter, it simply lacks passion and any real sense of forward motion.

On a technical level, the film deserves praise, accomplishing a lot on a small budget. The use of genuine historic locations saves on set building but a lot of effort has been made to take the streets where outdoor scenes are shot back in time and this, together with diligent costume work, makes the film look a lot more polished than one might expect. It's bound to give it local appeal and intrigue viewers with an interest in the period, but beyond that, this is a film that may struggle to travel.

Reviewed on: 04 Sep 2019
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This period film from Director Devon Parks weaves an intersecting web of characters, all having witnessed a murder from three different vantage points. An elaborate plot for revenge is constructed around the origins of a real life ghost story.

Director: Devon Parks

Writer: Devon Parks

Starring: Brett Cullen, Lauran Sweetser, Brandon Keener, Connor Price, Micah Hauptman

Year: 2018

Runtime: 101 minutes

Country: US


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