Firecracker (2005)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/28/05 12:37:20

"An intriguing tale of almost-true crime."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2005 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: I generally don't comment much on what the filmmakers say during the Q&A sessions, since it's not really relevant to whether or not someone will enjoy the movie, but one thing producer Clark Balderson brought up rather wigged me out: This movie, based on a true crime story (but with a fair amount of liberties taken), shot on the actual scene of the crime. Which isn't unheard of, when it happens in a public place. But here, we're talking someone's house, in a small town that's only ever had one crime of that nature. Got to be strange. Which, of course, fits with the rest of the movie.

The movie centers around the small town of Wamego, Kansas, in the 1950s. Two young men, Jimmy (Jak Kendall) and David (Mike Patton) live with their aged mother, Eleanor (Karen Black). David has taken over their late father's business and place at the head of the table, and has little use for his sissy, piano-playing brother, except as a target for abuse. When the carnival comes to town, Jimmy sees it as a colorful respite from his home life, especially the girlie show and Sandra, its lead singing attraction (Karen Black again). Little does he know that the last time the carnival came through, David got her pregnant, though the troupe's ringleader (Patton) had the pregnancy brutally terminated. Before too long, Jimmy reaches the end of his rope, and homespun sheriff "Ed" (Susan Traylor) finds herself investigating David's disappearance, while Sandra plots to escape the carnival.

Casting Karen Black and Mike Patton in dual roles is an interesting choice, which will invite a certain amount of armchair analysis from everyone who sees the film. You don't need to have actually studied Freud to read something strange into Black playing David's mother in one role and his lover in the other, or to see that both roles are mother figures for Jimmy. It's a tribute not just to the folks in the hair and makeup department who give her two very distinct looks with twenty-five years' difference between them; it's a pair of fine performances by Ms. Black. Both women have been abused and terrorized in their lives, and seem somewhat resigned to it. Their attitudes, which inform everything they do, seem far apart. You get the sense that Eleanor can't even conceive of things being better; her plan, even if she's not much good at it, is to hang on to what little she's got. Sandra still retains hope for a better life, but doesn't retain much fear for herself. After all, what could be worse than what Frank has already done to her?

Patton's two characters are much more similar in their outlooks and manners - they're thugs, and the differences between them are exemplified by what make-up and wardrobe do with him: David has a clean-cut appearance that doesn't really hide his aggression; he's the sort of abuser that gets away with it because what he does just wasn't mentioned in that time and place. Frank, on the other hand, has an evil-looking Van Dyke beard and tends toward theatrical dress and behavior, even when not on stage; he's openly monstrous, but moves on before people can realize the extent. Both appear to have inherited their standing, and perhaps that's why they throw their weight around with such abandon - they don't have the experience of interacting with others as equals. Frank was originally slated to be played by Dennis Hopper, but even though Patton isn't nearly as good an actor as Hopper - these are his first major roles; he's better known as the lead singer of Faith No More - but if Karen Black was already going to play two roles, why not have Patton do the same?

The other primary members of the cast are strong, as well. Jak Kendall is perhaps encouraged to overact a bit, but then again, his character is supposed to be high-strung and emotional. On the other side, Susan Traylor will recall Frances McDormand in Fargo - homespun competence and a willingness to run everything down despite the ugliness of the case. Frank and Sandra are surrounded by a number of carny folk, many of whom are not simply actors playing a part. What you see is what you get with the likes of, say, The Enigma.

That dedication to a certain sort of realism pervades the film. Steve Balderson, who shows up in the end credits in a lot of places besides writer and director, grew up in Wamego, and the story of this murder was, as one might imagine, part of the local folklore. Many actual locations were used, some probably not much changed from when the crime took place, and details may have come from the neighbors. During the Q&A, Steve's father Clark, who served as a producer, mentioned that the house where the murder took place was now owned by his plumber, who let them use it for a set.

And yet, in other cases, license has clearly been taken. I believe much of Sandra's story was added to provide a parallel to Jimmy's, and later action attributed to Ed were actually the work of the prosecuting attorney. There's a mystical subplot involving a girl living just outside of town. And, of course, there's the stylistic choices Balderson makes - most of the scenes in Wamego are shot in black and white, while most scenes at the carnival are lush, oversaturated color. It's an obvious bit of symbolism, but that doesn't take away from the skill Balderson shows with composition and color.

No doubt about it, there's some real skill on display in "Firecracker", along with a pretty decent story. My only reservation is that the film's semi-professional production sometimes works against it - it's good enough that some occasionally hammy acting or less-than-subtle cinematic techniques.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.