In This Gray Place

The “one-room pressure cooker” — a movie set almost entirely in a single location — is a filmic genre unto itself. Think of the big-time directors who used this setup to create career-making first features: Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men), Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs) and Roman Polanski (Repulsion), to name a few. Or veteran director Alfred Hitchcock (Rope, Rear Window), who employed it well into his mature years. For performers, it’s an opportunity to act up a storm, and the insistent spareness of this format forces directors and writers put a white-hot focus on character development. It has the potential tobe the canvas on which a masterpiece is painted, but it’s also a tricky genre to get right. Essentially, it’s a filmed play, and it takes a fair amount of sleight of hand to keep such a stripped-down engine from overheating before it’s time to fade to black.

“…in a standoff with the cops as he hides out in a sleazy bathroom at a freeway rest stop.”

Except for some dreamy exterior flashback sequences, In This Gray Place sticks to the indie filmmaker’s credo of keeping the logistics as simple as possible. It’s a one-roomer about a holdup man, Aaron (Aleksander Ristic), in a standoff with the cops as he hides out in a sleazy bathroom at a freeway rest stop. During his hours-long occupation, the movie occasionally cuts to exterior shots of the stranded holdup man with his girlfriend, Laura (Angela Nordeng), as they bask in the unspoiled countryside. Laura, in voiceover, occasionally recites cringe-worthy poetic monologues, which add little to the story and clash with the otherwise gritty tone. We learn how Aaron got into this predicament through numerous cell phone calls and texts he makes — his phone holds a charge for an amazingly long time — and flashbacks to the pawn shop robbery that prompted him to go on the lam. He’s wounded, surrounded by cops and without a prayer of escaping.

On brief occasions, we delve into portions that for lack of a better term we’ll call magical realism, but might be better described as hallucinatory moments. A combination of intense heat, supplied by a radiator cranked up to the max, and dehydration — wouldn’t you know it, the sink is busted! — cause Aaron to see mirages, like a prospector lost in the desert. It would have been interesting to explore that psychological aspect of the story in greater depth. Speaking on his phone to one of his cohorts, giving him the post-mortem on his crime exploits, Aaron exclaims, “This is some Shakespearean shit.” Well, not quite.

“…streamlined structure, down-and-dirty setting and highly desperate lead character has the look and emotional explosions of a potboiler.”

Overall, the reasoning behind the brazen holdup and the standoff that followed it has a few flaws, and the less attention drawn to the cracks in the foundation the better. After some intense gunplay, Aaron still believes that only one policeman is outside his little hideaway when it’s a virtual certainty that the entire state militia is lurking about, locked and loaded. In another sequence, he pulls off a diversion using his cell phone voice recorder that’s even harder to swallow. And somehow, he believes he can convey the robbery loot that he’s holding to another party without alerting the police to it. Keep dreaming.

In This Gray Place, with its streamlined structure, down-and-dirty setting and highly desperate lead character have the look and emotional explosions of a potboiler. But some slips in logic and incohesive shifts in tone prevent it from being totally convincing. As the protagonist finds out, it’s easy to plot a caper, but tough to get the big payoff you were looking for.

In This Gray Place (2018) Directed by R.D. Womack II. Written by Starring Aleksander Ristic, Marcus Johns, Angela Nordeng, Phil LaMarr, Nikolay Moss. In This Gray Place made its West Coast Premiere at the 2018 Dances With Films. 

4.9 out of 10

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