It’s been a decade since director Wayne Kramer broke out at the Sundance Film Festival with The Cooler, that sweet love story about a career loser (William H. Macy) whose romance with a cocktail waitress (Maria Bello) gets him in hot water with his casino boss (Alex Baldwin). That modest outing earned Kramer some cachet among actors, garnering, as it did, several award nominations for its performers, especially Baldwin. And like George W. Bush and his “political capital” after the close 2004 election, Kramer intended to spend it with indulgent follow-ups ranging from the utlra-violent Running Scared to the über-earnest Crossing Over.
But Kramer’s capital has long since run out, and it’s mystifying why so many name actors—including producer Paul Walker, Matt Dillon, Brendan Fraser, Vincent D’Onofrio, Norman Reedus (whose face we never even see), Chi McBride and Elijah Wood—agreed to appear in this nihilistic trash, a Pulp Fiction knockoff with little of Quentin Tarantino’s intellect or wit.
Over the course of one day in a small Southern town, three intersecting plotlines get their respective starts in General Lee’s Pawn Shop, operated by Alton (D’Onofrio) who spends the day shooting the shit with his pal Johnson (McBride) when he’s not paying bottom dollar for used shotguns, wedding rings and Elvis memorabilia. During these brief interludes, the two men jaw about the merits of black Santa Claus, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s accent in the Terminator movies and tater tots, and Kramer wisely moves on before their mildly amusing palaver becomes annoying.
In the first episode, junkies Raw Dog (Walker) and Randy (Kevin Rankin) plot to rob meth head Stanley (Reedus, in a gas mask) but are stymied when partner-in-crime Vernon (Lukas Haas) pawns their weapon for gas money to get to their super-secret meeting place. Note to screenwriter Adam Minarovich: The manic exploits of speed freaks are exhausting, not entertaining.
In the second, newlywed Richard (Dillon) stops off at General Lee’s on his way to his honeymoon in Orlando, only to discover his missing first wife’s custom-made ring in the display case. He sends his new bride on her way and embarks on a rampage of rescue and revenge in the film’s darkest chapter. We’re talking glimpses of I Spit on Your Grave-level torture and porn.
In the third, Elvis impersonator Ricky (Fraser) prepares for his gig that night at the town fair. There’s actually a tender moment in this segment, when a purveyor of patriotic novelties wraps the filthy naked women who have wandered into the festivities in American flags, but any sentiment is quickly negated by Ricky’s repeated mid-performance complaints about how “ripe” they are. Everyone in this film looks sweaty, greasy and stinky—at least these ladies have an excuse.
There’s another hint at merit back in the first act, when Raw Dog makes a rather cogent argument against anti-Semitism, and he and Randy realize kind of funnily that they’re not racist after all—they’re just in it for the delicious smoky weenies at the white supremacist meetings. But overall, Pawn Shop Chronicles’ stylistic flourishes, used so judiciously in The Cooler are heavy-handed here and, with the possible exception of when the picture squints into anamorphic, just not that clever.
Director: Wayne Kramer
Writer: Adam Minarovich
Starring: Paul Walker, Matt Dillon, Brendan Fraser, Kevin Rankin, Vincent D’Onofrio, Norman Reedus, Chi McBride, Elijah Wood, DJ Qualls, Pell James, Lukas Haas
Release Date: July 12, 2013