Taking its name from a long lineage of well respected films, most notably beginning with Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time in the Midwest looks to make an impact as another epic addition to the club of films that feature similar names. We’ve had Once Upon a Time in America, Once Upon a Time in China and of course Once Upon a Time in Mexico, why not another title representing middle-America this time out? Matt Kowalski’s Once Upon a Time in the Midwest doesn’t feature nearly as large a budget as the previously mentioned films did, and it’s not helmed by a proven auteur (or in the case of Robert Rodriguez, a solid Hollywood director) but I have to give credit where credit is due: he didn’t sully the good name of Once Upon a Time… movies. Although his film has no chance of living up to the reputation of the previously mentioned titles, amongst other action/dramas of this same variety his project is actually quite interesting and refreshing to a degree.
Once Upon a Time in the Midwest is a large ensemble piece that tells a larger story that consists of a revolving door of cast members and varying subplots. Our story revolves around a mayor who is looking to retain her iron-clad grip over a small mid-western town, her bumbling grandson who has been made a sheriff’s deputy despite his idiocy and a local businessman who has been inspired to become mayor in the new election after having a near-death experience. This experience has also awakened delusional visions within his mind on top of everything. While all of this goes down, we also have the notorious criminal Trevis Okeefe (Will Farley) who has been trying to persuade local gambler Frank (Justin Hawkins) to join his outfit, despite Frank being the type who always likes to play it solo. Trevis is a lunatic, currently employed by the crooked mayor, and he uses his authority to push around all of the locals. In this massive chess game for power, who will win out?
The constant bouncing around in chronology, along with the snappy dialogue which is loaded to the brim with expletives, certainly brings to vision the work of Quentin Tarantino. This is an influence that the filmmakers obviously carry on their sleeve, and they certainly aren’t ashamed of this fact. However, unlike Tarantino’s work, the broken chronological events don’t seem to flow nearly as well here. To make this easier on the audience, the filmmakers could have separated the sequences with greater visual cues or more distinguishable character pieces, but often times we’re left to fend for ourselves. Costumes, makeup, visual cues, etc. all go a long way in establishing the narratives of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. While Once Upon a Time in the Midwest does have some sequences that flow together well, occasionally you might find yourself having to piece together in your mind just where and when a particular scene is supposed to be placed within this chronological series of events.
Despite the issues viewers may have with the fluidity of the non-linear storyline, the project on a whole isn’t that affected by these discrepancies. The film as a whole is far better than I would have ever expected. Although the lack of budget is blatantly obvious when watching, the quality of the writing and many of the performances here make the project well worth watching. Although the visual quality of the film resembles your average run-of-the-mill zero budget picture, there are certainly moments that seem inspired throughout. From an “idea” perspective, and not necessarily because of any tricky visuals, the introduction to the film creates some of the best atmosphere within the movie. There is a sequence early on where the soon-to-be candidate for mayor Jimmy walks into a bar where he has a confrontation with a ghost-like bartender who certainly seems inspired by The Shining. Afterward Jimmy stumbles outside and in the broad daylight this ghost-like character follows him and begins to tell him about events that are happening within his life right at this moment. It is here that we discover that Jimmy has stumbled into a pool and is drowning to death, and that this ghost character actually is a supernatural being of some sort since he informs Jimmy of outside incidents that are happening outside of his own understanding. The sequence plays out like something from the work of David Lynch and shows early on that these are a group of filmmakers who obviously have some talent.
While I won’t say that it is a film for all people, it is a project that really surprised me in its deft handling of this content. It’s a project that shows true growing potential from the filmmakers and the cast and crew. Hopefully we will hear more from these filmmakers in the near future! You can read more about Once Upon a Time in the Mid West via the official Facebook