While soon-to-be-released headliners like Jordan Peele’s “Us” and Jonathan Levine’s “Long Shot” are launching at Austin’s biggest theater across town, more intimate venues are world premiering films that do not yet have distribution, trailers, and release dates. I got to three of those early in this year’s SXSW—a trio I was eager to see because of cast/crew, premise, or both—and can report back that at least one should get snagged by a studio soon and immediately go on your radar.
That one is Tom Cullen’s directorial debut, “Pink Wall,” a film that the actor shot with his partner Tatiana Maslany and actor Jay Duplass and almost no one else over nine days and for $100k. Relationship dramas are a tougher genre to pull off than a lot of independent filmmakers believe. The theory that you can put two people in a room and watch them bounce off each other may be nice for the ego and to keep the budget low, but entire film festivals could be filled with films like this that don’t feel genuine or resonant. “Pink Wall” works because Cullen trusts his very talented performers, building characters with them and then amplifying the themes of their journey through his experimental visual language. It’s an ultimately moving, very impressive debut.
Believe it or not, “Pink Wall” consists of only six scenes from six years of a relationship, but Cullen gets an amazing amount of mileage from those six scenes, which he films with different aspect ratios to enhance the mood of where the couple is at that moment in time. We keep returning to one of those scenes, the night that Jenna (Maslany) and Leon (Duplass) met at a club and went back to his place. Shot in 4:3, Cullen captures an immediate intimacy between these two through what feel like largely improvised scenes in which they let their guards down and act both goofy and revealing. These kinds of scenes are incredibly difficult in romantic dramas as they rely on believable instant chemistry and are often sunk by the fact that the filmmaker likes his characters before he convinces you to like them too. And yet the structure of “Pink Wall” amplifies the tone of its meet-cute because we will jump forward to unhappier days in the relationship, but we keep coming back to that night that these two never wanted to end, and that they are likely trying in some ways to recapture for the next six years.
“Pink Wall” bounces around in time in the other scenes, hitting major events over the course of this relationship, ones that reveal Leon and Jenna’s character flaws. She’s a bit controlling; he’s a bit of a slacker. In many ways, they don’t seem like a good fit, but he encourages her ambition in a way that helps her succeed, even if it leaves him behind in a lonely apartment. Throughout, Duplass and Maslany feel like a real couple. The walls of performer and script disappear and we watch the rise and fall of a relationship, getting windows into those fights that pop up as two people stay together.
There’s ambition embedded in Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s “Villains” too, but it doesn’t pay off in a satisfying or engaging way. This is a deeply frustrating film, one that proves that effective thrillers are not merely the sum of their parts. There’s an intangible element to these movies—a spark, an edge, an energy—that can’t be manufactured and will sink a movie by its absence. If one pulls apart “Villains” there are things about it that works, and it comes from a subgenre I love—the single-set thriller—but the entire picture never coheres in a way that’s effective or entertaining enough to recommend. Late at night, on a streaming service, it might tick enough boxes just through its cast and its intriguing premise. But I was hoping for so much more.
The charming Maika Monroe and Bill Skarsgard (dropping the creepy register he seems to often play in stuff like “Castle Rock” and being genuinely likable) are a couple of young, dumb, minor criminals. They just want to rob a few gas stations and make it to Florida, where he has a plan to sell shells that they find on the beach for 100% profit. They’re not exactly masterminds as they run out of gas after robbing a station and break down in the relative middle of nowhere. There’s only one house nearby, which they break into hoping to steal their car or at least siphon their gas. What they find there, including a twisted variation on Ozzie & Harriet played by Jeffery Donovan & Kyra Sedgwick, is the stuff of nightmare fuel.
Well, it should be the stuff of nightmare fuel. The set-up for “Villains” promises something gruesome and icky, a riff on something like “Don’t Breathe” or even “Blue Velvet,” but the tonal meter here swings closer to quirky than icky, to the film’s great detriment. “Villains” never feels like it has any real stakes. The threat level isn’t high enough and so the tension never really builds. Everyone in the cast works, especially the always-charming Monroe, but they’re working in something that keeps missing the few punches it tries to throw.
There’s a similar tonal imbalance that seeps into Lynn Shelton’s “Sword of Trust,” a film that works when it’s allowed to amplify its filmmaker’s skill with character actors but less when it resorts to wacky hijinks, which it ultimately does too much for my taste. This is a movie in which I wanted to discard every element of the plot and just hang out with the characters over coffee for an hour—something that speaks to both Shelton’s gift with character/performances and how little I cared about what actually happens in this movie.
Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins) are a couple who head to Alabama to collect the belongings of Cynthia’s recently-passed grandfather and collect any inheritance. They’re informed that grandpa reverse-mortgaged his house, which now belongs to the bank, and all that he’s passed on is a sword from the Civil War, one that comes with documentation and certificates that assert it was surrendered by a Union general to the South. Apparently, there’s an underground that believes the South actually won the war and the history books have been rewritten to lie to us. Cynthia and Mary take the sword to a pawn shop run by a curmudgeon named Mel (Marc Maron) and his dimwitted sidekick Nathaniel (Jon Bass), and the quartet endeavors to sell the item to the conspiracy nuts for as much money as possible.
There are minor beats in “Sword of Trust” that feel completely genuine, and I’ve been told that a lot of the film was improvised. The awkward stutters in an early scene between Maron and Shelton herself as a former lover of Maron’s have a ring of truth that the film lacks whenever the plot kicks back in. I loved so many of those minor beats in “Sword of Trust” that I felt all the more frustrated when the major ones didn’t work. Still, I wouldn’t blame people for being more forgiving of this film’s relatively goofy story just because they enjoy spending time with Mel, Nathaniel, Cynthia, and Mary. I so often wished the movie could close that sale with me too.