Taken at face value, the story depicted in Nick Gomez's illtown doesn't run any deeper than an average episode of a doom-laden Fox-TV cop drama. But the film probes underneath its familiar depiction of the milieu of drug dealers to find an ethereal and metaphysical exploration of character. What Gomez has created is a rare-almost subversive-cinematic treatise on the modern gangsta genre: Moral and spiritual vindication are what's being risked here, not drugs, guns or egos.

The world of illtown is centered in Miami, with a visionary feel similar to last year's William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet. A graffitied message on the wall where Dante (Michael Rapaport) is about to shoot up reads, 'The Love That Never Dies.' In one long, disjointed flashback sequence, we see the events that led the dealer to dip into his own goods.

Dante, his girlfriend Micky (Lili Taylor) and partner Cisco (Kevin Corrigan) have tried to make their drug-dealing business as genteel as possible. The routine of their dealings-considering the product-runs as comfortably as that lifestyle might allow. Indeed, Dante and Micky, with a nice little house, are on the cusp of traditional domesticity. Dante, instead of getting rough with one of his pubescent dealers, drives him far away and makes him walk back to town.

Into this offbeat and realistic portrayal of middle-management dealers materializes (literally, into the scene) a 'fallen angel,' Gabriel (Adam Trese), who has just been released from prison. In sharp contrast to Dante and Micky, Gabriel falls into the den of Lilly (Angela Featherstone), where the two spend their days whacked out on junk. Gabriel, it seems, is bent on getting revenge on Dante. To do so, he assembles a group of evil teenagers who, like Satan's minions, carry out his dirty work.

Religious imagery, fragmented storytelling and sharply contrasting personalities drive the narrative. No character is given absolution for his sins without paying for it with his soul. Presiding over the events are two calculated cameo performances: Tony Danza as the no-nonsense crime boss and Isaac Hayes as Dante's spiritual guru and the cop who wants him to come clean.

Scenery and locations change abruptly, almost jarringly-Gabriel could be shooting a teenage henchman point-blank under a bridge while Dante and Cisco hit the golf links. Dialogue is scarce, with most of it carrying ambiguous meanings: Cisco: 'Nothing changes.' Dante: 'Everything changes.' Or, when Gabriel appears before Dante (as an apparition?) to warn, 'You can't help anyone until you help yourself.' A haunting score only adds to the film's cryptic sensibility.

Performances are all superb. Taylor and Rapaport are clearly on the same wavelength as the director and add raw energy and touching emotion to their couple. Corrigan (the 'ugly guy' from Walking and Talking) brings relevance to an unusually long speech about a past love. And Trese's vengeful anger contrasts perfectly with Rapaport's stoic calm.

While the central conflict between Dante and Gabriel is not established conventionally or quickly, situations and images offer a power and intrigue uncommon even by today's independent standards. illtown is what independent movies of yore aspired to be: edgy without being improbably hip; thought-provoking without being pretentious. Gomez is one of the few young directors with a vision and the nerve to avoid typical Hollywood trappings. Along with his two previous films, Laws of Gravity and New Jersey Drive (also about the redemption of young outcasts), illtown offers evidence that his work-admirably-does not exist only as a stepping stone toward that ultimate of goals: the Big Production Deal.

--Glenn Slavin