Shapiro’s dramatic follow-up to the volcanic “Murderball” is great work. An indie worth every minute of the watching
Oscar nominated director of the documentary “Murderball” (2006) director Dana Adam Shapiro comes out of the gates running with his debut work of narrative fiction. Co-written with first time screenwriter Evan Wiener, he breaks traditional mystery thriller plots wide open with this searing slice of life about a struggling New York photographer who thinks he has a solution.
Photographer Theo, played by Chris Messina, has a good life, overall. He is engaged to the talented and beautiful Nat played by Rashida Jones (TV’s “parks and Recreation” and “The Office”). They don’t have much money but they have dreams. Theo is preoccupied with things outside of the relationship. This is understandable since he is a starving artist competing against a thousand like him who are as good or better. Nat plays a sensitive alternative folk guitar and sings while her thoughts are perpetually on the verge of drowning in the chaotic chorus of the hoard’s will to survive.
Theo’s idea is to specialize in photography taken on the sly. Clients pay him to photograph them as they go through their day. They will not know when or where he is taking the pictures, whom they will be with or what they are doing. It could be help a woman carry her stroller down the stairs or it could be pushing an old man out of the way to make a train. The result is a candid look at the client’s life. Unfortunately for the photographer it ends up meaning a lot more.
All goes well for Theo’s first client Mr. Margolin (Madison Arnold). The resulting pictures are fun and spontaneous—a normal person going about a normal day in a normal neighborhood. “Subgirl” is the next client. The name alone should spell trouble to any guy with a brain in his skull and Israeli actress Meital Dohan’s character is trouble in spades. From what we can see she has made Theo her special project. She will make him take pictures that will change his life forever.
As the film progresses Theo’s obsession with his subject grows and his commitment to Nat diminishes. His vision narrows until Subgirl is the only thing he sees. Like an addict he needs more of her but the more he gets the more he needs. His decreasing ability to connect to real people forces him to reconcile his obsession with his emotional needs but it may be too late for an honest appraisal of his own strength of purpose and self-respect.
Both the film’s photography and soundtrack are especially worthy of note. The soundtrack intersperses very tasteful pop treatments of classic rock and roll with new creations by credited film composer Jamie Saft. Saft has worked with dozens of known groups including the B-52s and was a core member of Kalashnikov. He composed the film score for Shapiro’s “Murderball.” Music Supervisor Doug Bernham supervised over 35 films including indie classics “Half Nelson” with Ryan Gosling and Felicity Huffman’s film festival darling “Transamerica.” He also did the Golden Globe nominated “Grace is Gone” with John Cusack.
This is not a piece of work that shrinks from offense. Nor does is hesitate to try potentially disastrous camera techniques and sound treatments. The moving pictures snap to stills as perfectly as anything from the 60s and 70s and have the loving touch of a master. The film brings back memories of Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow Up” from the Italian Golden Age of Cinema (1966). The photography is brazen and unapologetic with those long pensive takes that seem to burrow into the subject’s soul while building tension through the vicarious absorption of the viewers. The shots move with light speed from paralyzed invasiveness to driving choreographed pop music art. Music supervisor Bernheim and DP Doug Emmett are able to choreograph the action in conjunction with the music to generate fantastic resonance in the scenes.
The photography itself is fun New York—Delancy Street tennis courts and the redoubtable Brooklyn Social Club and the Jalopy Theatre in Red Hook. This is not the squeaky clean, hip, meld invested Manhattan. These are the parts of the city where people still actually are pounding the streets to make the next rent payment and looking over their shoulders for the person involved in that last deal gone wrong.
Directed by: Dana Adam Shapiro
Written by: Dana Adam Shapiro and Evan M. Wiener
Starring: Timmy Creed, Paul Courtney and T.J. Griffin
Release: Tribeca Film Festival—no planned release
MPAA: Not Rated
Runtime: 96 minutes