When it comes to genre, I’m pretty much a bloody meat and potato man: horror, exploitation, some sci-fi, and some more horror. One that I normally shy away from is noir. Not that I have anything against it; no, I realize that some of the best examples of cinematic comeuppance and gutter morality exist in the shadowy worlds of Chandler, Thompson, Bogie, and Bacall. I merely thought it would be a genre I would dive into when I was older, and perhaps more mature. Well, one of those is certainly true—maturity will forever be beyond my grasp, but the older me has been presented with Medias Res (2017), a gripping and gritty neo-noir that calls to mind early Michael Mann told from an urban perspective.
Medias Res opens as salesman-on-the-go Dave (co-writer Mike Delaney) tries to sell assorted wares from the trunk of his car to shoppers in a White Creek, California parking lot. Hapless though he may be, he nevertheless trudges on in the pursuit of happiness, one knife set and electrolysis machine at a time. Sales aren’t going so well, however; his roommate, a drug runner named Joe (Joseph Mason) tells him he has to help him steal cars as repayment for missing his rent again. Dave agrees and the two quickly find out that the cars they lift in Oakland do not have great resale value, so off they head to the upscale White Creek, where Joe finds a fancy auto unlocked with a button start. When Dave checks the trunk, however, he discovers a kink in their plan: a woman unconscious and tied up. Even worse? She’s Summer Hayes (Sarah Coykendall), the former star of Dave’s favorite teen soap, Quintessential American.
What follows is a litany of being in many wrong places at all the wrong times, with some friendships tested and others forged, as Dave and Joe find themselves immersed in a world of kidnapping, double crossing, and of course, murder. But are they too far down the malicious rabbit hole of deceit?
A micro-budgeted affair, Medias Res works because the focus is purely set on story and characterization; as per genre conventions there is gunfire aplenty, and while perhaps not as convincing in films with more feasible budgets, it isn’t nearly enough to detract from the winning performances and practical dialogue. You won’t find awkward speeches or false notes; neither pretense on high nor aspirations towards Big Statements. The Room, it ain’t.
What it does possess, and where it lives, is the desperation felt in the works of Paul Schrader filtered through pulpy noir, while still retaining a sense of reality. The plot machinations may be dime store (in the most delightful way), but the suffering—and the unlikelihood of redemption—that befalls Dave is heartbreaking. If “never give a sucker an even break” was a life motto, it would be his.
Dave is the Poor Schmoe, the Giant Sap, the Irretrievable Loser; a classic noir character to be sure, but he’s filled with a naiveté by Delaney reminiscent of prime Elliot Gould. It’s a great take on the Sad Sack so beaten by life that any retaliation only results in malevolent reverberation. Delaney the writer has given Delaney the actor a chance to shine as a sympathetic yet defeated character.
Director/cinematographer/co-writer Edwin F. Gonzalez bathes Medias Res in the vibrant color palette of early Mann, and each shot is skillfully composed to hone in on the moment and the people within. Even when working in the shadows, he has a firm grasp of placement and structure, and in a film like this, nothing pleasant ever happens in the shadows.
Being firmly ensconced in the noir genre allows Gonzalez et al. to play with the audience's emotions. How often do we forget that the guy doesn’t always get the girl or the glittering prizes? I’m not saying that’s the case here (nor am I not not saying it), but the filmmakers go to great lengths to make you care about the characters. Well, at least some of them.
Joe (played with charged ferocity by Joseph Mason) is perhaps a product of a broken system, and is righteous in his anger; however, he doesn’t attain much pity in his treatment of Dave, often berating and using him for his immoral ends. Joe is trying to get ahead no matter the means, which casts the character in an unflattering light throughout the entire film, not because of what he needs to do, but who he uses to accomplish it. It’s fascinating to see such a complex portrayal of abuse woven among the threads of dishonesty. Or perhaps it’s just one more strand?
As for our heroine, the striking Coykendall imbues Summer with a sweetness as she strikes up a friendship with Dave to thank him for rescuing her from the kidnappers. Being her biggest fan, it’s easy for Dave to go along with whatever she says. And the way she coyly plays Summer, you’re never exactly sure of her intentions. Let’s just remember what sandbox we’re playing in, okay?
Medias Res is a bit of a marvel; it aims to take a low-angle snapshot of urban decay and those that inhabit it, while framing it in a cool, clever, and updated potboiler of days gone by. That it works as both is a neon-drenched miracle.
Movie Score: 3.5/5
[Medias Res will be released on most streaming platforms in early 2019]