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My Father Die
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by Jay Seaver

"Well-heated Southern Pulp Gothic."
4 stars

SCREENED AT MONSTER FEST 2016: The title of "My Father Die" may not be great in terms of English grammar, but in terms of describing the raw rage that drives the characters in this movie, it seems perfectly reasonable: The building blocks of what someone feels without all the formal niceties, ready for action (although I wonder if it’s close to how one might express an idea in American Sign Language). This movie gets overheated at times, but is committed enough to that temperature that it works out pretty well.

It’s pretty basic - when Asher Rawlings was a kid (Gabe White), he idolized his big brother Chester (Chester Rushing) despite being fond of the same girl, though both feared their father Ivan, and for good reason - the prologue ends with him beating Asher so violently as to cause permanent hearing loss, and as the film proper opens, it’s just Asher (Joe Anderson) and his mother (Susan McPhail) living in a run-down shack in the rural South, and she isn’t of much use. When Sheriff BIllings (William Mark McCullough) comes by to say that Ivan (Gary Stretch) has been released from jail, Asher doesn’t think twice about what comes next: He’s going to get Ivan before he gets them, although he’ll make enough of a mess of the attempt that he’ll wind up pursued by a state detective (John Schneider) and wind up hiding out with Nana (Candace Smith), that girl he and Chester always had the crush on.

Writer/director Sean Brosnan does not spend much, if any, time worrying about the rightness of Asher’s goals; Ivan is a monster from the word go and there’s never much doubt that no good will come of waiting for him to do Asher’s family some harm before they fight back. This is not a great attitude to have in real life, but in this sort of movie, the lack of time wasted before getting to the spot where we were always going to wind up is kind of refreshing. The important thing is that Brosnan doesn’t let Asher feel entirely good about doing what he can to win a rigged game; though there’s never much doubt about what he needs to do from the start, he constantly seems to be asking himself if this is a step too far, especially when Nana and her son Chess (Jonathan BIllions) are involved, or when the fact that he doesn’t exactly have the skills to execute his violent instincts rears its ugly head.

Asher tends to ponder this silently, as he’s deaf, something that Brosnan thankfully doesn’t turn into something exploitative with a lot of “oh no, he doesn’t realize that there’s someone behind him!” stuff. It instead focuses attention on actor Joe Anderson’s face and body language, attention that is well-merited; Anderson communicates the anger and guilt Asher feels better without words than most actors would with them, especially as a heightened alertness battles with frequent exhaustion and strain. His skinny, scraggly appearance creates a strong contrasts with Gary Stretch as Ivan, who has come out of jail all muscle and self-assured ego. He’s a clear taker, and Stretch never presents him with an inch of accommodation in word or action. That’s not the case with Candace Smith as Nana, whose strength comes more from being willing to adapt than the sheer drive of the men. She’s got a kid and knows that what’s going on with Asher is not a good mix, but she cares enough for him to make it work, and it’s up to Smith to supply the decent core that says that there’s hope for humanity in this violent corner yet.

And, woo boy, does it get messy at times; Brosnan does not exactly hold back in showing what a dangerous man Ivan is, with the beating that climaxes the black-and-white opening sequence enough to make the audience wince and the escalating violence as he and Asher circle each other often playing as downright mean. It’s a pulpy sort of violence, to be sure, played as the natural extension to the heightened emotions of Brosnan’s southern gothic setting, though grounded enough that the film seldom seems like an excessively stylized fantasy. The closest it gets is during a terrific car chase at the climax, not only does Brosnan show excellent control over a high-speed sequence for someone making their first feature (although, to be fair, he probably got more chance to observe how you build one of these scenes first-hand than many do if he spent much time on the sets of his father Pierce’s movies), but Smith suddenly looks like someone who wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a classic blaxploitation flick, and one particular shot hammers home the extent to which Ivan must have seemed like an angry god to Asher growing up.

By the time that finishes up, something that started out looking like an intriguing southern indie has become a roaring grindhouse picture, and it doesn’t feel like a step down at all. "My Father Die" is a stylish, rip-roaring take on a genre that often wants to impress audiences with its quiet tragedy, and it’s all the more memorable for that.

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originally posted: 02/09/17 12:30:57
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2016 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Monster Fest For more in the 2016 Monster Fest series, click here.

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