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Hell's Gate (2006)
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by Lucas Stensland

"A New Voice in Crime"
4 stars

Thirtysomething Kevin (Brian Faherty) tells an off-screen woman about his red-hot pursuit to bed an underage teenage girl. He does this, he explains, because of his disgust with her father, a machismo who threateningly showed off his pistol to Kevin in hopes of scaring him off. The ploy fails. Enraged, Kevin goes all out, doing anything the young girl wants. She gives in. Their ships pass in the night, and he forgets her phone number. Kevin says itís the worst thing heís ever done, a statement that becomes ironic once we learn the identity of his interlocutor: a wealthy female hostage heís taken for no reason except the green one.

The above conversation is the first scene of John Cecilís Hellís Gate, a crime drama being privately promoted across the US in hopes of attaining distribution. The film has only four main speaking parts and is set primarily in a warehouse where the woman is tied to a chair. Based upon Cecilís own play, the film pulls off a great feat: by opening up the script through his lean direction, the audience never gets the feeling that theyíre watching a play adaptation. Maybe Mike Nichols should give Cecil a call.

The story involves ex-con Kevin and his former cellmate Ben (Jeremy Cohen, delivering the filmís best performance) getting involved with a mysterious Brit who seems to have more information on the pair than he should. The moneymaking venture involves the kidnapping of a Paris Hilton-esque figure in hopes her father will pay the bribe to keep the story out of the press. Things, of course, donít go quite like that.

It carries many of the elements that characterize successes in its genre. There is leanness in its visuals and scenes. One is never aware of those tired expositional dialogues that lesser filmmakers rely upon so they can blow their wads on hip posturing and action set-pieces. Cecil unfolds the story so organically that you donít even realize its intricacy until later: it has the wonderful appearance of simplicity. People who suffer post-1994 cultural amnesia may file this under Tarantino Wannabe, though while QTís residuals are hard not to see, the essence of the film Ė the human concern and moral quandary Ė harks back to film noir. Remember that Samuel Fullerís Pickup on South Streetís final outburst of violence was not concerning the thiefís code of honor: he just didnít like the woman being slapped around.

Having a character tied to a chair in a warehouse will remind many of Reservoir Dogs. However, having a woman sitting in a chair in front of a bunch of men in a darkly lit, spacious room will remind some of a strip club performance. She is not only the subject of the hoodlumsí gaze but the audienceís as well, and this cognizance of the female spectacle is at the heart of the film.

A woman being forced to take a seat and then assaulted by the men surrounding her likens the film more with Tobe Hooperís The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and its politics than to Tarantinoís domination motifs, which seem more fetishistic than political. Cecilís concern isnít overtly feministic, however. A palpable disgust with oppressors takes center stage in his film. And donít mistake Kevin for a vigilante. Heís a temperamental beast whose decisions derive more from the gut than from good. He must have watched a lot of Eastwood in prison.

I have referred to Quentin Tarantino a lot in this review, usually stating how he is irrelevant to the conversation Ė and I admit to the irony. Itís hard to escape his umbrella. After all, he did, for better or worse, change filmmaking and the way many watch films. The dilemma is that there are many directors who have hunted in the same celluloid wilderness as Tarantino and walked out with different stories and experiences. Audiences have begun to mock sincerity and treat moral dilemmas as kitsch. Many hipsters want style so bad they no longer recognize it. Style isnít simplification and exaggeration (like Sin City). Style can be subtle and to the point. And John Cecilís Hellís Gate has real style.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=15499&reviewer=390
originally posted: 12/03/06 11:20:09
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