Early on in the indie crime drama Counterfeiters, protagonist Bridger (played by writer/director Bryce Hirschberg) describes the nerve center of his makeshift cash-printing operation thusly: “It’s like a meth lab, but instead of cooking meth… we’re cooking money.”
For a lot of viewers, that line will likely bring to mind a certain fictional chemistry teacher-turned-New Mexico drug kingpin, and it’s probably not by accident. Breaking Bad set the gold standard for these kinds of “average Joe gone Scarface” stories, and like the ambitious young gangsters his characters clearly want to emulate, Hirschberg knows how important it is to pay your respects to the boss.
“…seeks to hit a lot of the same highs and lows you’d find in a three-hour Scorsese-style epic or multiple episodes of serialized TV in a scrappy, bite-sized package.”
Derivative as the film can be, though, what’s impressive about Counterfeiters is that it manages to distill a surprisingly complete version of the crime genre’s traditional rise-and-fall narrative into a film that mostly takes place over the course of a single night in just a handful of locations – and clocks in at just a shred over 70 minutes of running time. Hirschberg seeks to hit a lot of the same highs and lows you’d find in a three-hour Scorsese-style epic or multiple episodes of serialized TV in a scrappy, bite-sized package, and even if Counterfeiters can’t realistically compete with the likes of Goodfellas or Breaking Bad on most levels, the endeavor is admirable. This is a small-scale, small-budget movie, but it’s got swagger.
Hirschberg’s character turns to illegal behavior for a reason that’s actually a lot more sympathetic than Walter White’s: when his cancer-survivor mother (Julie Simone) is stricken with a recurrence of the disease, charismatic twenty-something Bridger is forced to come up with a way to pay for her treatment. Six months later, he’s raking in cash from an ingenious (if implausible) method of counterfeiting twenty-dollar bills, and he’s assembled a loose-knit crew of his dudebro buddies to help him print and launder the bogus currency. Most of the film takes place on the night when the successful operation starts to crumble under its own weight, with everyone from Bridger’s oblivious girlfriend (Peyton Pritchard) to a pair of hopped-up cops to a mercurial drug dealer (Noel Castellanos) providing complications that spiral into the inevitable chaos and bloodshed that genre conventions demand.
To its credit, Counterfeiters plays the story fairly straight, eschewing the chronological convolutions, dark comedy, and philosophical mumbo-jumbo that too many young Tarantino-worshippers have imposed on their scraped-together crime sagas. The dialogue isn’t brilliant, but neither are most of the characters, so their testosterone-fueled interactions – Bridger is by far the suavest and most charming of the bunch – come off fairly naturalistically. The film lacks polish in a few areas (spotty sound editing and some egregious over- and under-acting, for example), but the handheld camerawork is competently done and Hirschberg clearly has a good sense of how to wring production value out of his well-chosen locations.
What he’s less adept with, however, is sticking the landing. Counterfeiters suffers from a third act that’s awash in illogical character choices, resolutions that are either too pat or glossed-over and morality that seems out of touch with the rest of the movie. That’s particularly unfortunate, since the film’s one-night, pseudo real-time structure is such an ingenious way for it to build tension over most of its first hour. The setup is solid, and the elements are well established for an intense and emotionally engaging payoff – some scaled-down riff on Goodfellas‘ virtuoso, “shit hits the fan” finale, perhaps – but what’s here just doesn’t satisfy like it should.
“Most of the film takes place on the night when the successful operation starts to crumble under its own weight.”
The cynical-minded might be tempted to equate Hirschberg (also credited as the film’s editor and co-producer) with his character; he’s made a reasonably believable facsimile of a better movie that, in the end, doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. But that’s neither fair nor entirely accurate – Counterfeiters is distinctive enough in its characterization of Bridger and so efficient and engaging in its world-building that its mishandled climax shouldn’t weigh so heavily against it. If Hirschberg hasn’t learned all of the lessons of the crime flicks that inspired him, he’s at least picked up enough that his ambitious feature debut – unlike its main character – doesn’t come off as having been too far out of its depth to get away cleanly.
All told, this might be the start of a filmmaking career that’s the real deal, even if you hold it up to the light.
Counterfeiters (2017) Written and directed by Bryce Hirschberg. Starring Bryce Hirschberg, Robert McEveety, Noel Castellanos, Taylor Lockwood, Peyton Pritchard, Julie Simone, and Shawn Rolph.
3 ½ out of 5 stars
Official site: https://www.brycehirschberg.com/