The butterfly effect, first popularized in sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury’s short time travel story “A Sound of Thunder,” postulates how one small action — like the brush of a butterfly’s wings — can have far-reaching, unforeseen effects on future events. In writer/director Derrick Borte’s superbly paced and gripping new thriller, American Dreamer, the butterfly effect is wonderfully/horribly realized onscreen when an unstable, financially stressed divorced father makes a single brash decision which sets the seemingly unstoppable course of events in action that end in terrible tragedy.
Looking more and more like Philip Seymour Hoffman in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, comedian Jim Gaffigan is cast against type as a Cam, a one-time successful computer programmer who has lost almost everything in the wake of a work altercation — his home; his job; his marriage; and most devastatingly, access to his son whom he is barred from seeing by a restraining order. Bloated and disheveled, Cam is reduced to living out a crappy motel and driving for an Uber-like car service called Hail. The opening montage with passengers entering and exiting Cam’s weather-beaten car as he desperately tries to make some kind of human connection with each of them is a brilliant visualization of Cam’s isolation and loneliness.
“…desperate to make ends meet, he sets up an arrangement of sorts with local drug dealer Mazz…”
Despite his best efforts, Cam is behind on his expenses and child support. So, desperate to make ends meet, he sets up an arrangement of sorts with local drug dealer Mazz (Robbie Jones) whose ferocity and ruthlessness bring to mind the sociopathic villain Marlo Stanfield from The Wire. Smarter than most of his underlings, Mazz plays it low key and employs Cam as his driver and de-facto cover when picking up his daily take from his small cadre of dealers. At Mazz’s beck and call, Cam chauffeurs Mazz to and from his pick-ups and, in the process, witness money seemingly pour into the young man’s hands. Cam also occasionally ferries Mazz to the house he shares with his girlfriend, Marina, (Isabel Arraiza) and his young son. In some upside-down way, Mazz possesses everything Cam does not — wealth, sexual prowess, respect, fatherhood, and power.
After a particularly demeaning encounter at a gas station where he runs into an old co-worker, Cam begins to hatch a mad plan. Withdrawing what little cash he has from his account, Cam heads to a local survival store. With each item he purchases — duct tape, a bavaclava, a fake pistol — it becomes apparent that he plans to take Marina hostage in exchange for ransom from Mazz. There’s no way this can end well, you keep telling yourself as these events unfold and the onscreen dread increases. And soon enough, following a single terrible decision, Cam’s plan goes sideways, unleashing a wave after wave of horror and violence.
“…interplay between Gaffigan and Jones, is beautifully nuanced and imbued with a verisimilitude…”
To reveal any more about the film’s plot would be unconscionable, for this is a rare beast indeed. In nearly every aspect, American Dreamer is a stunner. The acting, especially the interplay between Gaffigan and Jones, is beautifully nuanced and imbued with a verisimilitude seldom found in an indie film. The spare score by Bryan Senti is beautifully wrought and ratchets up the tension to a fever pitch. And director Borte’s impressive command of the narrative, with its multiple twists and turns, pins the viewer to their seat until the final claustrophobic conclusion. Smart indie films like this don’t come around too often. See it however/wherever you can and then bookend the experience by picking up a copy of Bradbury’s short stories.
American Dreamer (2018) Directed by Derrick Borte. Written and by Derrick Borte and Daniel Forte. Starring Jim Gaffigan, Isabel Arraiza, Robbie Jones, Tammy Blanchard, Curtis Lyons.
9 out of 10 stars