Saturday, May 19, 2012

Natural Selection (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Natural Selection

Here is a semi-romantic road movie with  Southern Gothic flavor. "Natural Selection" a first time feature effort by director Robbie Pickering focuses on a sheltered Christian wife Linda ( Rachael Harris) and her quest to find something new. Linda is often in a dark gray bedroom in a loveless marriage with her husband (John Diehl). Linda is constantly blighted by low self esteem. And because she is unable to conceive, her husband ignores her and seeks to have children via a sperm clinic.

One day Linda finds out that her husband has an illegitimate grown son of about thirty by the name of Raymond. 

The road trip begins.

The film has a gritty quality reminiscent of the fiction of Flannery O' Connor. Crosses sprout upon the earth like iron mushrooms, rigid and unyielding. Nearly every house is flat and brown seemingly made from ash. The baked soil is composed of old coffee grounds thrown away and gone to waste.

Linda finds the son, a violent, angry and ignorant junkie (Matt O' Leary). The son wants nothing to do with Linda and he is so irascible he is at first more akin to Manson than any unemotional Christian hubby. But Linda is not to be rebuffed and herein lies most of the comedy. The film has a daring irreverence ala John Waters' "Female Trouble" Raymond is so angry he injures himself while trying to be protective of Linda. He gets beat to a bloody pulp so badly that for the first third of his screen-time, Raymond moans, groans, belches and screams. As his hair and face is matted with blood, his passionate agony almost echoes "The Passion of the Christ". Conversely the more Raymond complains the happier Linda becomes. They bicker back and forth like a backwoods version of "The Honeymooners" This could have made for quite dreary viewing but the contrast between the two is so startling---the pious and the profane---that it makes for some entertaining irreverence. 

Matt O' Leary,  in what seems to be the main charge of the film is a vivid anti-hero. As scary as Raymond first appears, he is a shade slapstick and this humanizes him. He falls on his face, gets back up and laughs. Like like itself, Raymond is a mixture of the violent and the violet. As Linda's bond grows, Raymond's grimaces become mitigated and subdued, yet they never disappear. Within his irascible nature, Raymond becomes Linda's beacon showing her an alternate unrighteous path, combined with an escape from a confining and unloving husband.

If there is a criticism to "Natural Selection", it is that we don't see Raymond change all that much in the course of the film. True, he cleans himself up hygienically and gets a suit, but would he go back to his druggy ways, and did he ever stop? We are never sure. And given his ignorance and his dirty, tattoo mottled arms Raymond  is a little too much like a stereotype that remains unchanged. The film could have benefitted from an unexpected about-face revolution in tone as in the dark magic of "Something Wild" (1986). 

After some dynamic coupling, the bond between Raymond and Linda just runs a little tame along formulaic tracks. Of course there is going to be a crazy relative, and of course there is going to be a series of mishaps and some yelling back and forth. Still, the rich performances by Harris and O'Leary in particular make "Natural Selection" a satisfying trip along the flatlands of  Florida to places unknown. The uncompromising dialogue alone is worth being uprooted for.
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