Saturday, May 24, 2008

Red Dirt - Wonderful Indie

Red Dirt is not quite like any film -independent or otherwise - to have come out in some time.

While some critics expressed disappointment it wasn't the great southern gothic romance -straight or gay - it was rumored to be, others criticized it seemingly unable to connect with its characters. Over the years since its release, however, it has slowly become something of a cult film and seems to be finding its own niche.

Though a low budget independent, director Tag Purvis succeeded in creating a visually stunning film, his cinematography never less than breathtaking; his sense and use of color vivid and true. In all honesty, I did not expect to enjoy Red Dirt so was surprised at film's end to find myself in tears, wholly drawn to its characters and watching each in their self-imposed exiles endlessly and futilely attempting to connect to each other, their loneliness universal. While the premise is easily recognizable . . . perhaps, predictable, Purvis takes a standard plot and gives it a spin all his own bringing fresh, inviting characters on a backdrop never less than breathtaking. He captures almost perfectly summer in a tiny town deep in the American South. With deadly silences hauntingly punctuated by birds, wolves, crickets, locust, and endless rain, the film's soundscape is both haunting yet tranquil. Deceptively so.

The premise is rather simple: Griffith (Dan Montgomery, Jr.) an orphaned young man living with and caring for his mentally unstable Aunt Summer (an Academy Award worthy performance from Karen Black) is having an affair with his cousin, Emily (Aleksa Palladino). Both are loners and cling to the other out of desperation as much as youthful passion. Enter Lee, a drifter (brilliantly played by Walton Goggins, more recently of “The Shield” fame) and an unusual love triangle ensues which will alter everyone’s lives.

An essential element of any good southern tale is the employment of crazy women and the women in Purvis’s tale exhibit varying signs of madness as each attempts to hold on to her deeply hidden, long held secrets. Purvis's women exhibit a wondrously wide - as well as wild - range of emotion bouncing from minor instability and madness to profound wisdom and acceptance. One of the most touching developments of the story is the growing bond between Emily and Aunt Summer.

Each scene breathes with the magic of the almost ephemeral and gauzy qualities of a dream. One scene in particular is among the most arrestingly beautiful moments of honesty I have seen captured on film. The gay repression angle of the story works perfectly here with both men quiet, almost unaware as to what is developing between them. Where Lee sees where things are headed, Griffith is so naïve and stunted as to believe what is going on between them is devoid of any sexual tension or romantic leanings: it’s purely friendship. This naivite makes Griffith’s penultimate unhinging and dangerous rage all the more believable and the final scene all the more moving.

Karen Black's Summer is an emotionally unstable woman of epic proportions. A lifetime of guilt as she hides her secret has driven her mad. We see that pent up madness escaping in her dramatic loony-tune sequences as she escapes into a world of operatic music and bed. While some gay audiences complained about the lack of romantic ending, I could not possibly imagine a more literally "romantic" finale. Rage, revelation and confusion subside into sadness, forgiveness, self-awareness and acceptance - all as the sun streams down on a glorious southern evening.

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