By the time assistant bank manager Peter Price (Christopher Mur) and his long-ago friend, ex-convict Jake Mahoney (James Aidan McCaffrey) sit down at a table in a diner—after what is perhaps the most ingenious cut from one location to another in an independent film—it’s evident that writer/director Mitchell L. Cohen has been watching for years the works of filmmakers like David Mamet, whose method of storytelling is so deliberate, developing from minute to minute, rather than telling audiences right away what to expect. Cohen demands the same attention, because no minute in “Peter’s Price” is superfluous.
Cohen hooks the entirety of his premise on the question of who these men are. He starts by using locations and his characters as sparsely as possible, giving us only Peter, a look at his job, interaction with one of his employees, and the kind of cordiality towards a security guard at the bank that reflects cordiality at any other job: You only do it because it’s part of the environment.
He walks to his car in a very empty parking garage and after closing the trunk, he is held up by Jake, who obviously wants his money. But on the ground, with the gun in his face, Peter recognizes Jake. They went to high school together! And Peter was a budding criminal back then. So the big question at this point is why Peter worked toward where he is today.
After the reunion, Jake goes back to demanding money and before he reaches “3” in the inevitable count, Peter’s panicked suggestion of dinner on him is attractive and there’s that cut from the parking garage to the restaurant that’ll cause audience members to demand that the projectionist rewind the film, or make them reach for the DVD remote at home to see it again. Even though the music prior to it seems inappropriate (too overdone in its attempt to be suspenseful, and noise that sounds like flies whistling, if they could), the cut wouldn’t work if it didn’t have that music.
Even as they sit across from each other at the low-lit diner, finding out more about each other’s lives, Cohen pulls off the balancing act of still keeping them apart even as Jake is trying to get closer to Peter in conversation, finding out the answer to that all-important “Why?” Jake is obviously separate enough from Peter by the gun he carries and his disheveled appearance, made so by the years ripped from his life by where he’s been. Peter is separate by his suit and the memories both of them rehash. It turns out that before he turned to this relatively comfortable life, Peter ran numbers and hocked car radios. Jake tells Peter that his life sounds pretty plain, and Peter fires back that with where he’s come from, it’s inspiring, but really, anyone can do what Peter did. A lot of people have, I’m sure.
Cohen’s actors, Christopher Mur and James Aidan McCaffrey benefit richly from his screenplay and by what he has their characters wear. Because of the hooded jacket and the dejected, yet angry look in his eyes at times, McCaffrey-as-Jake attains a hangdog look that nearly brings sympathy over to him. Jake wants to try to pick up his life and in detailing more about what he’s done over the years, his story triggers more interest than Peter’s. However, Cohen doesn’t finish there. Once the end is reached, it’s clearer than clear that this is a potent study of perception that begs the question of whether appearance has a higher importance than what a person has become over the years. And that alone increases the already enormous worth of short films at film festivals, on DVD, and on the Internet.