The slightly off-center loner who lives in a shack in the desert is often romanticized in literature and on the screen. And if filmmakers are taken with the myth of the tormented anti-hero living in self-imposed isolation, they love the visual drama of those arid regions where these stories are set. Wide open spaces and desolate, sparsely populated environments have pain and alienation written all over them.
Just such a barren landscape mirrors the tormented soul of Phoenix (Tom Sizemore), an eccentric, rugged individualist living in California’s Yucca Valley. Tied to a rigid routine that includes prescription drugs, medical marijuana, whisky and espresso, Phoenix lives in lonely isolation, barely able to tolerate any human interaction. Like a house cat who gets unnerved when the furniture is rearranged, he’s agitated when slight, seemingly ordinary changes to his all-but hermetically sealed environment take place.
“Part of the mystery involves information that is indelibly printed on the soles of his feet by a tattoo artist…”
One day, when a new letter carrier takes over for his usual mailman, we begin to learn the answers to the mystery behind his many quirks, fears and lifestyle choices.
That the new mail carrier, Arial (Christina Bennett Lind), is an attractive woman might lead us to expect that this is going to be a meet-cute romcom between a grounded but quirky female and a crusty, loveable older codger — the film’s trailer plays up that angle. But as Calico Skies’s story unfolds, we find that it’s a good deal darker than that.
The film is all Tom Sizemore’s. The rest of the cast is there to help establish his character’s stubborn, anti-social nature. His well-meaning neighbors try to befriend him, and his sister invites him to a family reunion to no avail. Sizemore is effective as the guarded, gruff but vulnerable Phoenix. He’s able to manage short periods of social interaction, but all too often his defense mechanisms kick in without notice and he spouts unfiltered vitriol once he senses others are getting too close to him.
“…as Calico Skies’ story unfolds, we find that it’s a good deal darker than that.”
It’s not until we learn why Phoenix chose to live in his desert outpost, as well as how he’s been earning a living over the past seven years, that the pieces begin to fall into place. Part of the mystery involves information that is indelibly printed on the soles of his feet by a tattoo artist who makes regular house calls to his humble cottage. His past as a stunt pilot plays a prominent role in his descent into the darkness in the sun-drenched Mojave. We learn about the ominous side of his life one evening when two thugs pay him an unexpected visit.
Calico Skies is strong on character development but the storyline runs a bit thin. At just 78 minutes in length, it feels longer and could have used some editing — and perhaps another rewrite. Sizemore inhabits his role as a loner so deftly that most of his interactions with secondary characters feel under-written and are less engaging than his solo time on screen. Still, the struggles, humanity and neurotic tendencies of his infectious character keep this strange tale of regret and doomed hope for salvation alive in the darkness of the desert’s blazing sunlight.
Calico Skies (2017) Directed by Valerio Esposito, written by Valerio Esposito, starring Tom Sizemore, Christina Bennett Lind, Vincent Pastore, Kiowa Gordon, Charlotte De Bruyne and Robert LaSardo.
7 out of 10