Slow Burn (2011) – By Cary Conley

The guys at Rebel Pictures and UnSAFE Film Office are at it again, this time with a 20-minute crime drama with a killer twist ending. Denise is a young lady who is being forced into prostitution by two street punks. The local cop on the beat is after the two thugs and spends his time either harassing them or the pretty bartender at the local saloon. As the problems escalate, the two girls hatch a plan to end their abuse by the three men and get on with their lives.

 

Co-written (along with A.E. Griffin) and directed by Michael McCallum who also stars as the cop, Slow Burn is a sort of throwback to the kind of hard-boiled films noir of the late forties and fifties. The themes of illicit sex, murder, and male domination are present but tastefully done; witness the superb opening sequence where the viewer is introduced to Denise, the prostitute. She walks down a long hall and unbuttons her blouse. Removing her brassiere, the scene cuts to her back. As she turns her head towards the voice that is talking on the phone just off-screen, a male hand reaches towards her to stroke her hair. Cut to Denise pulling her blouse back on. The viewer knows exactly what has happened, but rather than take the film down a more "low-rent" avenue, McCallum opts for a more tasteful–and more emotionally powerful–storytelling technique.

We are then introduced to the cop who, in typical noir fashion, refers to women by using derogatory terms such as "legs", "sweetheart", and "honey". He may be a cop, but women are merely objects to be manipulated and used. He continues his domination of women in a local bar where he forces the female bartender to drink with him and insists on forcing his phone number onto her though she is clearly not interested. McCallum does a superb job of portraying a man on a power trip. His body language and facial expressions really capture the arrogance of the character, Detective Trembo. For his part, Trembo clearly lacks confidence, and to make up for this, he goes overboard with the macho act. He’s cocky, arrogant, and rude, but continues to insist he’s the "good guy", as if by repeating this phrase he can convince the people surrounding him–as well as himself–that indeed, he is a good guy.

Other noir trappings include some terrific chiaroscuro scenes, particularly when Denise, dressed in dark blouse and skirt, is framed by the white light streaming through a window. The foreground is also obscured in shadows creating an alternating pattern of dark then light followed, yet again, by dark. This motif is again repeated after the cop has confronted the thugs in the bar. As the two angry men storm out of the darkened bar, one of them slings the door open only to be washed out by the overwhelming whiteness of the sunlight outside. Venetian blinds figure prominently throughout the film as well.

While the film begins with no musical score, McCallum instead opting for ambient street sounds, soon enough, the theme song, "Slow Burn" begins to play, again harkening back to nightclub singers of the forties. The song, written by Natalie Barry, evokes images of a sultry, sexy singer standing alone on a darkened stage, cigarette smoke framing her body as she croons into the mike, hands stroking the microphone stand. The song is perfectly suited for this film.

The editing in the film is creative, especially in two particularly outstanding scenes. One, in which the two punks ambush and beat up Detective Trembo, is a terrific example of how to cut a fight scene for maximum effectiveness. The second scene, in which the girls’ plan to bring the three men together in hopes of creating a murderous clash unfolds, is a perfect blend of back and forth cuts between the enemies as they enter the bar. McCallum’s and Jon Worful’s editing really shines in this scene, which is stylish and effective in increasing the tension before the explosive climax of the film.

A.E. Griffin’s cinematography is also a high point. The opening shots of Denise as she enters, then leaves the house are well-designed. Focusing on medium shots and close-ups of faces and other objects–like the reflection of the kitchen in an extreme close-up of a brewing coffee pot–Griffin alternates between handheld and dolly shots. There is a wonderful handheld shot that follows Denise as she approaches her pimps. The camera follows her in profile view, drawing close to her face before swinging around behind her so the viewer can see one of the punks waiting for her at the car. It’s a fantastic shot, raw and a bit shaky, causing the tension the viewer feels as we see Denise approach her pimp. For her part, newcomer Paige Graham, as Denise, does a fine job conveying her personal anxiety as she approaches the pimp. But my favorite shot is actually the long final shot used for the end credit sequence. As the girls’ plan comes to fruition, they escape town, driving through the night. They continue through traffic light after traffic light, slowly moving away from the lives they once led, the lights of the city reflected in the hood of the car as it slowly moves through the streets. It is a near-genius montage of shots made more powerful by Barry’s full version of the theme song playing over the end of the film. It makes for a super-cool and very classy ending to a powerful and surprising film. Even if you aren’t a fan of film noir or classic 1940’s and 50’s crime films, you will appreciate the pure artistry in this 20-minute, black-and-white short.
The two female leads, Graham and Kayla DeWitt as the bartender, are both excellent. Although both are brand new to film, they manage to hold up against the rock-solid performance of McCallum, himself quite an experienced actor. Both ladies portray a great deal of vulnerability and manage to evoke real sympathy from the viewer. However, the look they share between them as they both realize their plan to rid themselves of their male dominators sent a shiver down my spine; these two women may be vulnerable, but they show they also can be cold-hearted when they need to be.

Slow Burn has just been completed and will be premiered on February 19th. McCallum and Griffin have made several excellent short films, and hopefully a DVD compilation will be released in the future so other viewers can see these wonderful films. For more information about this film as well as the filmmakers, please check out Rebel Pictures at www.rebelpictures.net or UnSAFE Film Office at www.unsafefilmoffice.com.