A debt owed between friends spirals out of control in Eddie Jemison and Sean Richardson’s King of Herrings. When obnoxious loudmouth Ditch (Eddie Jemison) is too slow to repay his debt to the Professor (Joe Chrest), and makes matters worse by taking out his anger on mutual friend Leon (Wayne Pére), the Professor decides to take matters into his own hands to teach Ditch a lesson, by doing his best to insinuate himself into Ditch’s home life by visiting Ditch’s perpetually ignored wife Mary (Laura Lamson) when Ditch is out with friends. His devious, and often charmingly inept, plan winds up causing ripples in the small group of friends, even as Ditch’s best friend Gat (David Jensen) works through his own drama.
Generally when I see films that include a group of friends treating each other horribly, in words or deeds, I wonder why they’re still pretending to be friends. In this case, I don’t have to wonder, because it is clear that, friends or no, these men would still find each other. Posturing cowards at best, to a man their actions seldom match up to the intensity of their words and, if they do come close, it’s always directed down the ladder at the weaker of the group. They tolerate each other because no one else would have them.
For as depressing a thought as that might be, they each still have opportunities throughout the film to transcend the hells they’ve created for themselves. Which is ultimately a testament to the writing, as here we have numerous characters that all have very real stories and character arcs, all with a chance at redemption or growth. I think an argument could be made in many directions as to whose story this film is really telling; while an on-the-surface observation might consider it Ditch’s tale, the truth is that Mary, Gat and even Leon have a more complex emotional journey to take over the course of the film. I like to look at it as if Ditch and the Professor are the opposite posts holding the high wire up, and it’s everyone else who has to take the risk on the wire. Or, if we want to take the film’s look into account, Ditch and the Professor are the absolute black and white, while everyone else wanders in the gray.
Thus, the choice by the filmmakers to create a black and white film works on a number of levels. It heightens a sense of desperation to the imagery, sure, but it also complements the narrative with its stark appeal. It also gives the film an otherworldly feel; coupled with the carefully crafted dialogue and the general design of the film, from the sets to the wardrobe, it’s a film that seems to exist in its own time. You could make an argument that it’s set in the past, but there’s also no reason it couldn’t fit in the now.
I’m surprised I didn’t mention it first, because one can’t have a conversation about this film without also praising the performances within, but there is not a weak moment to be found throughout. The writing gives everyone a lot to work with, sure, but just because someone pitches you an easy strike down the middle, it doesn’t mean you’re going to make contact, let alone hit for extra bases. Here, everyone swings for the fences and everyone is successful.
Chrest’s Professor is so devious and charming that, if he actually had a backbone, he’d be shockingly dangerous; Jensen’s Gat has spent so much time quietly dishing and receiving bullshit, he’s gotten lost trying to decipher it all; Jemison’s Ditch is the loudmouth who bullies lest he be bullied, trying to create a world where he’s the top of the food chain; Pére’s Leon is reluctantly stuck in an orbit with unsavory friends because, sometimes, they’ve done right by him; and Lamson’s Mary is like someone awakening from a deep sleep, looking around to realize that much has changed since she first slumbered, and nothing is as she’d like it to be anymore.
Can you tell that I really liked King of Herrings? There’s something to be said for films that spin your mind up long after you’ve finished watching them, revealing new ideas and interpretations. If there’s a criticism to be given, it’s more going to be one of taste. The performances are great, but not everyone is going to be able to accept that over their own intolerance of some of the characters’ behaviors or words. For me, the film hit in all the right ways, was darkly comic, intriguing when it played on my expectations and ultimately left me more than satisfied when it ended.