A radio interview with a local Chicago musician turns out to be more than just small talk in Chris Van Loan II’s James “The Butcher” Johnson. When radio DJ Kimberly Power (Dora Robinson) asks musician James “The Butcher” Johnson (Kevin Gant) about where he got his nickname, the musician reveals the full, dramatic history behind it, from its more innocuous origins to its brutally earned status to what it means today.
James “The Butcher” Johnson is a straightforward, matter-of-fact walk along a spiritual journey full of highs and lows. Musician Kevin Gant may not be playing himself here (he already told his story in Jay Duplass’ documentary Kevin), but it is easy to see where he pulls in his own life experiences to enhance those in Johnson’s tale, though perhaps not in a way you might imagine. Even as the events that are explained become more disturbing, Gant’s Johnson remains calm and conversational, perhaps only showing emotion when his hands instinctively strum the guitar briefly. Thus, Gant’s Johnson isn’t someone who is haunted by his past so much as someone who walked that walk, and has come to peace with it.
And that is where the film works for Gant, but doesn’t always work for DJ Power opposite him. Mostly off-screen and there as a conversational prod, our DJ reacts, or more specifically doesn’t react, to Johnson’s story in a way that sometimes feels disconnecting for the viewer, as it creates large pockets of silence around his words (a silence that, if it is interrupted, is interrupted by distracting ambient sounds). She often seems to be quietly accepting Johnson’s story as if it is commonplace and normal, when it is anything but.
Or maybe it’s so surprising that she’s shocked into silence. Or maybe it’s just the respect to let someone get their story out. Regardless, it was a choice that may work incredible for others (and I can see that argument), but often made me feel like something was lacking.
It’s going to seem like an odd touchstone to go to, but consider Dennis Miller’s radio personality in Joe Dirt (I’m not prone to saying anything positive about that film, but life is full of surprises). Sure, he’s insulting and using Joe Dirt as comic fodder for his show, but the way he moves Joe’s story along creates a conversational balance between the two. In this film, Gant is tasked with the heavy lifting, and while he can certainly handle it (his voice and storytelling is strong and calm), it would’ve been nice if he had someone more actively walking through the tale opposite him.
Overall, James “The Butcher” Johnson is a film that rides strongly on the shoulders of Kevin Gant, and where and when it plays into his wheelhouse, it excels. I could listen to Gant talk, or sing, about almost anything, and his demeanor is calming by its very presence. In other areas, when he is asked to more traditionally act, as in flashbacks, it’s not that he isn’t capable, but that he isn’t seasoned and it doesn’t come off as smoothly as everything else he does. He is a charming, engaging personality, however, so no doubt it’ll come with experience, should he keep taking on acting roles.
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