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By Phil Hall | December 24, 2013

Aristotle once commented, “The aim of the wise is not to secure pleasure, but to avoid pain.” At the center of Ryan M. Kennedy’s indie drama “The Projectionist” is a trio of characters who are imprisoned in pain. Unable to liberate themselves from their condition, they wind up self-destructing while bringing down those around them.

The title character of the film is an ex-soldier named Jacob that works in the projection booth of a crummy New York City theater. But he has no eyes for the make-believe worlds that spin through his projector’s reels. Instead, he suffers with undiagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder brought about from an eight-month spell when he was captured and tortured by enemy forces. He has all but isolated himself from the world, living in a cramped apartment stuffed with analog technology (a 16mm projector, a rotary phone, a clunky tape recorder) that barely reminds him of a happier, easier past.

Circling this sad figure are two people with their own crosses to carry. Ivana is a Russian-born prostitute hired by Jacob to relieve his frustrations. She is hardly the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold – she views Jacob with wariness bordering on contempt, and she openly announces her self-doubts when she attempts to connect with him on a cordial level. Her back story is not plumbed, though her body language suggests a life that has been more bitter than sweet.

Also in Jacob’s orbit is Marlon, whose vagabond appearance suggests a soul that has been kicked aside by an impatient world. His eyes betray a discomfort that seems to be equal parts shame and paranoia. As he speaks, his fingers nervously create a triangular steeple in a vain attempt to project calm. Jacob offers Marlon the altruistic gift of a free meal at a cheap diner; Marlon repays him with a gift of heroin addiction that sets off a disastrous domino chain that brings down everyone in Jacob’s path.

As a writer/director, Kennedy has created a fascinating vision of emotional isolation and physical angst along the seedier edges of New York. With eerie black-and-white cinematography that emphasizes too-close-for-comfort close-ups, “The Projectionist” offers a disturbing portrait of damaged lives that draw blood while clawing futilely for healing. It is a harsh view that never lapses into cynicism or gratuitous violence. Instead, it resonates with the sorrowful tone of cries that go unanswered by a busy, distracted world that has no time for people that are unable to repair their lives.

The fuel to this bold concept comes from three astonishing performances. As Jacob, Russ Russo offers a heartbreaking interpretation of a warrior reduced to a shadow. While his lean and muscular body might suggest a readiness for battle, he is unable to maintain a conquering soldier’s strut – instead, his hunched posture and Chaplinesque shuffle offer testimony to a broken spirit. His empty eyes gaze in anguish at the few people willing to acknowledge him, and his voice has the halting cadences of someone who has forgotten the basic tenets of human interaction. It is a fascinating and devastating feat of acting.

As Ivana, actress/model Natasha Alam creates a woman who is eye candy with a potentially toxic center. She protests to Jacob about trying to establish a connection that goes beyond a commercial transaction, yet she recklessly ignores her own warnings by continuing to entertain him. In a crushing scene where Jacob publicly humiliates her when she is on a date with a conspicuously classier guy, Alam uses her leonine presence to create a woman reacting like a cornered animal – a blend of fear, anger, anxiety and an adrenalin burst ready to explode.

As Marlon, Doug E. Doug offers a character that is eons removed from his family-friendly roles on “Cosby” and “Cool Runnings.” He is adept as both the hapless victim of petty impatience (embodied by Zahir Zahrieh as a hostile diner waiter) and the casual sculptor of a lethal narcotic gift. He takes passive-aggressive behavior to a sinister extreme. It is a complex role, as Marlon appears to be constantly at odds with himself – you never know if he is a ticking time bomb or a fragment of a lost life.

“The Projectionist” is, sadly, not without a few missteps. The film’s opening and closing are shot in color, with the bulk of the action presented as a monochromatic flashback – it is a reverse effect of “The Wizard of Oz” that is somewhat distracting, especially since Nicolas Canton’s black-and-white cinematography is simply wonderful. (The color denouement doesn’t quite measure to the passion that precedes it.) And while fleeting hints of Jacob’s torturous period in captivity are suggested in sprinklings of violent scenes in a manner reminiscent of Sidney Lumet’s “The Pawnbroker,” the extended recreation of the events are staged in a manner that accidentally betrays the film’s low budget.  (Kiowa Gordon of the “Twilight” saga turns up very briefly in a dialogue-free role as a doomed soldier who is tortured to death.)

But even with its imperfections, the overall concept and the core performances raise “The Projectionist” above the typical indie fare. This is a marvelous production that deserves to find an audience.

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  1. Ethan Zee says:

    I believe this film The Projectionist is doing an exclusive release on Kickstater only until March 17th, 2014.

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