South of Heaven (2008) – By Duane L. Martin

Roy Coop (Adam Nee) is released from the Navy and happily comes home to live with his brother Dale (Aaron Nee), where he plans to complete the novel he’s been working on so they can both get rich and move into a fancy office high up in some swanky building and live like executives someday. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way. See, his brother had tried his hand at boxing, but had a glass jaw. Because of this, a insane criminal named Mad Dog Mantee (Shea Whigham) lost a lot of money betting on him, and as such bullied him into being his parner on a crime spree, rife with robbery, rape, kidnapping and murder in order to pay him back for his betting losses. Dale had no choice but to go with him, though he had no stomach for any of it. This is where the problem began. The two, in their crime spree, had kidnapped the daughter of a mob boss, and while they were holding her, Mad Dog killed her. They cut her up and started sending one finger at a time in letters to her father, who was a strong believer in an eye for an eye. As such, he sent his two enforcers to Dale’s apartment, where they found Roy and assumed he was Dale. So far there had been two fingers received in letters, so naturally, Roy lost two fingers in the encounter and was beaten to a pulp. This process continued until he only had a couple of fingers left, and after they burned his novel, they shoved his face in the flames and horribly disfigured him. Now he’s no longer Roy, he’s Nobody, and he’s out for revenge. Will he be able to save his brother from Mad Dog and kill those who did this to him? That’s the question.

Let’s just start out by stating the obvious. This film is visually VERY beautiful and VERY stylized. Most of the settings are really color intense and many of the settings are done in sets with artwork backgrounds. It also contains a great deal of really cute and or fun animations to tell the lead in story as well as some other things. However, while film is in fact a visual medium, it can’t exist on looks alone. The story, characters and acting have to be there to back it up and make it work, and unfortunately in this film, they just weren’t.

Let’s start out with the primary problem. This film tries to be rather Tarrantino-esque in its dialogue, and as such, it’s wordy. I mean, REALLY wordy. Like, wordy to the point where you just wish people would shut the hell up already. There are three main offenders in this, those being the two mob enforcers, and Mad Dog. Mad Dog is especially annoying, not only because he’s really irritatting to listen to, but because his constant stream of B.S. ruined his character. He could have been a total psycho and evil to the core with about 1/10th the dialogue. As it is, all he really ends up being is annoying. Aaron and Adam Nee’s characters don’t really have a huge amount of dialogue, and as such, their characters tend to get rather buried under those who do. It’s sad really. This film had such a great look, but the script was so bloated with dialogue that was trying to be stylish and cool that it really ruined the film. Not only that, but once Roy became "Nobody" and went out looking for revenge, you kind of expect him to be a total badass, filling his enemie’s hearts with terror. Unfortunately, he only has one kill that’s really kind of badass, which is the kill he makes on mob enforcer #1. Mob enforcer #2 then goes into this long, drawn out bit of banter that totally ruins any coolness about his death, and then when he finally confronts Mad Dog, he basically walks in the front door and is instantly taken captive. He’s not even the one that ultimately kills Mad Dog, so what was the point in trying to sell him as this man hell bent on revenge? The whole thing just didn’t work at all.

I don’t mean any of this to imply that the performances were bad, because they weren’t. This wasn’t the fault of the cast, it was simply the result of a bloated script. There is in fact one member of the cast whose character wasn’t full of bloated dialogue, and who did a phenomenal job of playing her character, and that’s Diora Baird, who played Lily, the girl Dale ends up falling in love with. Her performance was very understated and quiet, and she has a character that feels more dimensional than the rest, which was a nice contrast to everything else that was going on in the film. No one did a bad job with their roles, she just happened to be the one that really stood out in the subtlety of her performance.

The long and the short of it is, while the film is visually really damn beautiful, the bloated dialogue, uneven pacing and lack of a badass main character make this one a totally miss for me. I could recommend it, but only as a rental or a streaming view, and only as a one time watcher. I would imagine some would disagree with that opinion, and that’s totally fine. I can see where this style of film would have it’s appeal to some viewers. What I’ve given you here is simply my opinion of it, and for me, it’s just a miss.

The special features included in this release include the following:

  • Three audio commentary tracks.
  • Critic commentary.
  • Three short films by director J.L. Vara, including Miserable Orphan (38 min), Azole Dkmuntch (28 min) and A Boy and His Fetus (15 min).

The DVD will be released on October 11, 2011 from Synapse. You can pre-order it through their website here, or through Amazon here.