Baltimore filmmaker Jimmy Traynor took a huge risk in creating his new feature “Beat the Bastard Down”: the film would be shot guerrilla-style over a 32-hour period in a completely improvised manner. The cast would not be told what the film was about in advance. In fact, the actors were unaware of what to expect for each scene until the camera was ready to roll.
The risk paid off, brilliantly. “Beat the Bastard Down” represents one of the most finest works in Traynor’s considerable canon, and it is also one of the most intriguing thrillers in recent independent cinema.
Steve Kovalic, a long-time member of the Traynor ensemble (mostly in supporting parts), gets front-and-center attention here as Phil, an oleaginous realtor with an addiction for women. His targets are almost always gorgeous and married, and he has no qualms intentionally sabotaging marriages while fulfilling his ravenous libido. But the idea of commitment appalls him, and Phil inevitably dumps his gals once they are free of their husbands.
But Phil meets his match when his boss Vivian decides that she wants Phil for keeps. She literally stops at nothing to get her wish, even forcing Phil to become her virtual prisoner when he kills her husband. Or did he actually kill the man? Phil’s absence creates concern among his swinger pals, who realize Vivian may be taking advantage of their beloved player. Without giving too much away, the circumstances of Phil’s submission to Vivian becomes a delicious warped mind game of staggering surprises.
In relying on a purely improvised film, Traynor put a lot of faith in his actors and they paid him back a thousandfold. Kovalic, a somewhat doughy physical presence, will not be mistaken for Gael Garcia Bernal in regard to sexually hypnotic appearance. Yet he turns on the charm at full throttle, working the stud routine with an excess of flattery and the ability to tap his victims’ vulnerability with a sheer force of personality reminiscent of a young Jack Nicholson. As Vivian, Teddi Florence is a fierce presence who is equal parts vulnerable, domineering, feminine and tough-as-nails. Her scenes with Kovalic truly radiate with raw, visceral energy that makes the viewer feel like a voyeur.
Also worth noting are Fabrice Uzan and Ben Schyan as Kovalic’s allies in misogyny (think of a 21st century equivalent of Dan Akyroyd and Steve Martin’s Wild and Crazy Guys), Molly Bruno as the kitchen-wrecking one-night-stand, and Kevin Tan in a wonderfully funny cameo as a noble brother whose attempts to avenge his wronged sister ends in disaster.
Ultimately, the triumph belongs to Traynor. As a director, Traynor has never been more self-assured and sophisticated with his storytelling. “Beat the Bastard Down” features several extraordinary flights of Hitchcockian imagination: a spurned girl, facing her sober after a night’s intoxicated pleasure, destroys Phil’s kitchen in a rage: a marvelously sick dream segment when a model from a sex talk phone line commercial appears in Phil’s bedroom (only to turn into someone nightmarish); and the genuinely unnerving sequence when Vivian’s husband attempts to infiltrate Phil’s home by systematically forcing his way through every possible door or window.
Improv can be the cruelest way to reveal inadequate talents. But with “Beat the Bastard Down,” the improv approach taken by Traynor and his company results in a genuinely surprising and thoroughly entertaining commentary on the battle of the sexes. As a filmmaker and storyteller, Traynor has never been better. This is truly among the year’s best indie films.