Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

"Ed Herrera's cinematography is incredible."

Whelm in each sense, to bury, to cover over by throwing, to destroy, to saturate with emotion. Whelm that gives us under- and over- depending on perspective. Whelm from the Old English, hwaelf, from the older and yet older for arch, for curve.

Arch indeed. More than curving. A first feature for multi-hyphenate Skyler Lawson, given to writing, directing, here only co-composing. Four previous shorts from a similar position, five words across their titles. Brevity in title is not matched by simplicity of ideas. Whelm unfolds looping back and forth in its own narrative, adding detail in each weaving pass.

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It describes itself in part as "a tall tale", told in "thirteen short chapters". In no particular order they are an ode, in this array they are somewhat of an odyssey. It is not black flags that are flown, but colours are muted and stronger for it. Ed Herrera's cinematography is incredible. Set in and among the Depression the framing is stark. I was minded of photographers like Ansel Adams, the unvarnished Americana of Rockwell. Looking is rewarded for this is a film of detail.

Numbered in the Roman fashion, eye to exes and triples. Between Wind & Soil, Chasing Foxes, Cold Shoulder, Corps A Corps, Empty Nest, Half Empty, Heavy Crown, Heavy Hand, The Long Way Home, Monday October 23, Old Strangers, The Tightened Snare, Toting Iron. They are not vignettes, nor short films nor single scenes, they are moments and moods. Fading from black to detail and detail to black, sunsets and thunderous skies, silhouettes and shocking violence.

Even as it is being told it is retold, voiceover and deception and fortune telling. There are newspaper headlines and radio announcers, both suffering from a tendency to overplay the signifiers of past forms. Not so the costumes, the colours, the language. Strong in places too, at other times mumbled enough that even when the music is conveying meaning speech is not. Composer Chris Dudley of the uncertainly pigeonholed former Christian rock band Underoath ably creates music that hops genres as each segment demands.

It is the Depression, colours as muted as the times. Light through windows startlingly used, a bank raid in a single take that carries us along as surely as the camera. The discomfort of a squeaking wheel, makeup after injury, ice in October. All is detail, and rewardingly so.

"it just says so on paper," we are told. A tall tale told at least triply, later scenes unlock what has come before. Despite its weight of allusion, illusion, it cannot resist at times showing us the trick. The chapter headings are near enough the only text on screen Its coda does not undermine what comes before and it is never not clear that something that will give us a path through the woods is coming. Yet the reveal of the trees is perhaps less a treat than an unreliable narrator could make it. That's not to say it's unsatisfying, but having built so much tension the way it is eased feels slack. This weaves not only through its own story but history: there's mention of Jesse James and Clark Gable but those are the most famous stars in its firmament.

The cast are all relative newcomers, but that isn't clear from their performances. There's a surety to it all, on both sides of the camera, all sides of the story. In terms of making something that feels true to period on a tight budget I was minded of The Red Machine. It is the past so everyone smokes, wears hats, but not much fuss is made of them. Socks and shoes and stream crossings all give glimpses of character. Shot on actual film, it has a the feel of the past.

The film tells us to look at details and it rewards this. From the red letters on an undershirt to the combination from a captive's lips, writing is everywhere. Reed (Dylan Grunn), his brother August (Ronan Colfer) and the stranger Alexander Aleksey (Delil Baran) are our pro-, deuter-, and trit- agonists. Classical as much because this has more than the whiff of the tragic to it. The machines of the gods are more modern, aerial photography from drones gives us the sweep of cropland, of river valleys, of the wash of Wabash, Indiana. A Ford Trimotor might be entirely CG, it doesn't matter. It is a work of wriggly tin or wrangled pixels, it fills the screen just the same.

"This ain't playing cowboys" we are told. The 1870s were as far from the 1950s as the 1930s are from the 2010s, and this is less heist movie than meditative oater. Safes are robbed, banks too, except the key to cracking is in combinations, not quickness. At times its sense of alienation and flattened affect recall some vaulting hybridity - A Man With No Name Who Fell To Earth. This is not quick, not far short of two hours. It makes reference to a 24 hour dance-a-thon. This is an era of endurance spectacle, but the leisurely pace here is not exhausting.

Identities are secrets, and secrets are identities. Whelm creates tracks even as it is covering them, transporting us back and forth to a specific and non-specific past. Where the film is weak is perhaps in its pacing, in sometimes stumbling despite its surety. Early enough it becomes clear that there is something going on, but the nature of it cannot be said to be a twist - this is by its nature curved, arch, magical in its realism. Whelm engulfs with the clarity of its vision, and where it submerges its quality in hesitatiocy it still shines through.

Reviewed on: 11 Aug 2021
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Set during the Great Depression, two Midwest brothers get tangled in a rivalry between a legendary bank robber and an eccentric young criminal.

Director: Skyler Lawson

Writer: Skyler Lawson

Starring: Francesca Anderson, Delil Baran, Ronan Colfer, Jacob Eaton

Year: 2019

Runtime: 114 minutes

Country: US


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