Indiana wants me: Whelm (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 14, 2021)

“My only request is that you pay mind to the details of my story, with hope we see eye-to-eye at the end,” writes the protagonist/narrator in the opening of Skyler Lawson’s Whelm. As I learned the hard way (that is, having watched it in a somewhat distracted frame of mind in my first go-around), it would behoove the viewer to heed the writer’s advisement, so as not to be left feeling blindsided or bewildered by the epilogue.

That is not to say the narrative is willfully obscure; at its core it’s no more densely plotted than your standard-issue 90-minute crime caper. It’s just that (and I know this will be an instant turn-off for some) it has been s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d into a 2-hour ah…visual tone poem. In other words-patience, Grasshopper.

Not that that is a bad thing in this handsomely mounted period piece, drenched in gorgeous, wide scope “magic hour” photography shot (almost unbelievably) in 16mm by Edward Herrera. Writer-director Lawson’s debut feature evokes laconic “heartland noirs” of the ‘70s like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us.

Set in rural Indiana during the Great Depression, the story centers on two estranged brothers: our narrator Reed (Dylan Grunn) and his older sibling August (Ronan Colfer), a troubled war veteran. The brothers help their father run an inn that has seen better days.

Like most people of the time, the brothers are bereft of funds and always looking to scare up extra coin. This leads them to fall in with a pair of extralegal characters-a suave, charismatic but decidedly felonious fellow named Jimmy (Grant Schumacher) and a cerebral, enigmatic man of mystery named Alexander Aleksy (Delil Baran). What ensues is equal parts heist caper, psychological drama, and historical fantasy (in 13 “chapters”).

For an indie project that was shot in just 2 weeks, the film has an astonishingly epic feel, which portends a big future for Lawson. Lawson also co-composed the dynamic original score (with Chris Dudley). He is helped by a great ensemble (all previously unknown to me). Baran makes fascinating choices as Aleksy- I think he will be someone to keep an eye on as well.

If you’re hankering for a film with (as Stanley Kubrick once described his approach) “…a slow start, the start that goes under the audience’s skin and involves them so that they can appreciate grace notes and soft tones and don’t have to be pounded over the head with plot points and suspense hooks” and hearkens back to something we old folks used to refer to as “cinema”-this is about as good as it gets in the Summer of 2021.

WHELM is on digital platforms and in select theaters as a 35mm roadshow event.

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