- Director: Sean Williamson
- Cast: Sean Williamson, Frankie Latina, Kelly Cunningham, Parker Winship
- Running time: 60 minutes
The digital revolution has made it possible for any rank-and-file film student to pick up a high-end camera and come away with something resembling a movie. “Resembling” is the key word, as most digital projects end up looking more like Syfy originals than actual sci-fi films. So there’s still something to be said for the power of honest-to-god film, as well as mounting an honest-to-god independent production on a shoestring budget. Director Sean Williamson takes this approach in his feature debut Heavy Hands, a “country crime caper” shot on black-and-white Super 8 film and marked by a gritty, avant-garde flair. The film’s themes of memory, revenge, and betrayal may be familiar, but watching them unfold is a unique pleasure.
Williamson stars as Jimmy Lee, a man who finds himself on the run after he steals a mysterious duffel bag from the backwoods Caldwell brothers. The oft-shirtless Caldwells, nicely described by the film’s narrator as “primitive and severe people,” exact revenge by killing Lee’s girlfriend during a camping trip, Last House On The Left-style. What follows is a tangled flow chart of family, friends, associates, beautiful women, axe-wielding heavies, suicidal milkmen, and various lowlifes who set out to either help or hinder Jimmy (sometimes both) in his quest for revenge. It’s a credit to the film’s unique character that Jimmy’s revenge remains remarkably obtuse, and plays out mostly in terse dialogue and equally terse intertitles. (“Jimmy Lee had a job at the dog track. Then they closed. And that was that. He stole this bag in a brawl. And shouldn’t have.”)
Though only an hour long, Heavy Hands tells its story at a leisurely pace, finding time for picturesque respites and unexpected cameos from the The Royal Tenenbaums’ Kumar Pallana and Milwaukee’s own Mark Borchardt and Frankie Latina. (Milwaukee groups Jaill, Hello Death, Hot Coffin, and Altos provide the soundtrack.) The film’s cinematography—handheld and mostly utilitarian—owes a debt to the earlier work of Jim Jarmusch, though a few scenes, like Jimmy’s fateful camping trip and a walk through a haunted house, are surprisingly lyrical. But it’s the film’s experimental, avant-garde bent that leaves the greatest impression. Heavy Hands may bill itself as cowpoke crime drama full of bleak landscapes and tortured souls, but, like all good experimental films, it’s really about the power of film—honest-to-god film—itself.
(Heavy Hands premieres at the Oriental Theatre tonight at 7 p.m. An after-party at The Hotel Foster follows.)