7.2

Bad Turn Worse

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<i>Bad Turn Worse</i>

“Things are not what they seem,” Sue (Mackenzie Davis) tells her best friend Bobby (Jeremy Allen White) at a Whataburger, after arguing the semantics of calling the Southern breakfast dish “biscuits and gravy” when you only have one biscuit, cut in half. She’s truncating hardboiled fiction writer Jim Thompson’s famous quote—“There are 32 ways to write a story, and I’ve used every one, but there is only one plot: Things are not as they seem.”—after handing Bobby a copy of Thompson’s South of Heaven and discussing their joint foray out of their small Texas town to college. Cue up a coming-of-age, end-of-high school film about finding yourself during one final, wild, romantic summer, right?

Wrong. Things are definitely not what they seem in Bad Turn Worse, and by the end of the movie, blood, murder, armed robbery, rape, and classic Coen-style noir will make more than just personal appearances—they’ll become constant companions during this short, tersely shot film.

Before the Whataburger, we see B.J. (Logan Huffman) steal a wad of cash from a safe. Whose safe this is or why he’s stealing it remains a mystery for the time being. Then, in the middle of Sue’s and Bobby’s stories-and-plots conversation, B.J. slides into the booth next to Sue, makes a few cracks about these “college kids,” and pushes them to have a wild night out. When they protest, he tosses a fat stack of 100s on the table, and the night’s sequence is filmed in a typical high-schoolers-out-on-the-town montage. Except, of course, for the fact that the money flowing from B.J.’s wallet is stolen from a squirrely smalltime gangster named Giff (Mark Pellegrino).

The next day, B.J. and Bobby head to Giff’s farm, whereupon they discover a nameless Mexican “guard,” who B.J. slipped by to reach the safe the night before, covered in blood and filled with broken bones as Giff continues kicking him in his shattered ribs, demanding the stolen money back. Bobby, who has just learned of B.J.’s extracurricular not-quite-legal activity, takes blame for stealing the money in an attempt to save the guard. Giff looks at Bobby and shoots his help in the head. Things are not what they seem.

Angry but surprisingly calm, Giff lays out the plan for his teenage employees: whoever stole and/or helped spend the money will regain it by robbing Big Red, a high-level criminal in whose employment (and debt) Giff begrudgingly finds himself. Cue an unraveling tale of betrayal, resentment, red herrings, double-blinds, murder, and, perhaps most of all, youthful naiveté. Potential subtitle for this film? Kids With Guns.

The dialogue throughout burns and pops like recently lit kindling, Huffman offering a cruel, sneering B.J. replete with a small town Texas vocabulary. Watch as the boy hisses and intimidates, disgusts and entices, even if his threats are as empty as his head. Meanwhile, White’s Bobby is the king of indecision, second-guessing himself, lost to the world: a smart boy who doesn’t enjoy intellectualism; a careless boy desperate to escape his home without a clear idea of what the future will hold; a strong boy in love with his best friend’s girl without a thought for the consequences; a child changing his mind with every frame. The opposite is Davis’s Sue, strong-willed and together. As a trio, the three teens balance each other perfectly. Most powerful, though, is Pellegrino’s Giff. A one-note character, sure, but that one note is enough to send chills down the spine of even the most hardened criminal. Maybe even Big Red—only time will tell.

The film moves in familiar beats. Nothing here is designed to surprise, but Jeff Bierman’s cinematography is gorgeous in its bleakness—all darkness and beiges—while Simon and Zeke Hawkins’ direction allows the camera to focus on the shadows, shooting the protagonists in low lighting, often from below, forcing tension to build.

And yet, as beautiful as Bad Turn Worse can be, everything about it is so familiar, and a tad slighter than its ilk. Brick already did a better job of integrating high schoolers into a noir format, and classics like Blood Simple already laid the groundwork for the kind of western noir to which Worse aspires. Bad Turn Worse isn’t bad, it’s simply generic, but it owns its genre with such swagger one can’t help but look forward to seeing these actors, directors and writer in action again.

Directors: Simon Hawkins, Zeke Hawkins
Writer: Dutch Southern
Starring: Jeremy Allen White, Logan Huffman, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Pellegrino
Release Date: Nov. 14, 2014