Film Review: All Mistakes Buried

Filmmaker Tim McCann, star Sam Trammell and superb cinematographer Alan McIntyre Smith elevate a low-budget crime drama to an elegant, if repetitive, character study.
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Director and SUNY-Purchase film professor Tim McCann has made a string of psychological crime dramas that are like hardboiled crime paperbacks by some of your better writers—your Jim Thompsons, your John Franklin Bardins. That his seven previous movies have received only token theatrical release or gone straight to DVD is curious, given what McCann accomplishes in terms of tone, setting and performance on miniscule budgets—his first film, Desolation Angels, no relation to the Kerouac novel, cost just $42,000 but won the International Critics Prize (FIPRESCI Prize) at the 1995 Toronto International Film Festival. Given adequate time and money, who knows what he could achieve?

McCann’s eighth movie—which had the much less confounding title The Aftermath when announced in 2013—is a showcase for "True Blood" cast member Sam Trammell, who stars, co-wrote the story with screenwriters McCann and Shaun Sanghani, and is the executive producer. He plays Sonny Coles, a down-and-out crack addict who was formerly the well-off owner of a security-alarm company in an unnamed small town. (The movie was shot primarily in Alexandria, Lousiana, in the state where Trammell was born and "True Blood" partly was filmed.) The star's investment in time and/or money paid off: New York theatre veteran Trammell delivers a performance that perfectly nails the infuriating, unattractive behavior and switch-on bullshit-story ease of an experienced addict—the sporadic itching, the restless tapping on a steering column as he drives, the wary head-swivels as he habitually watches out for cops or other dangers, and the occasional sheer, reckless, unthinking bravado. Needless to say, he gets beat up pretty good pretty regularly—and Trammell is so daringly dead-on that while we may sympathize with Sonny, we can recognize how much of what he gets he has coming.

Fractured chronology, with flashbacks, flash-forwards and repeated sequences, puts together his story. He once had a big house and a loving but insecure spouse, Jen (Missy Yager, Trammell's longtime real-life partner), and while tempted, apparently never cheated on her. But his sincere attempts at explaining himself during couples counseling comes off as monstrous ego and self-absorption, and when a semi-innocent phone number turns up amid his keys and wallet on a counter, Jen thinks the worst and jumps to conclusions that destroy their marriage.

It's unclear how much later it is that we find Sonny in such sad shape, living in a rundown motel room with a wheezy and rattling air-conditioner and somehow cobbling together enough wrinkled bills to buy drugs from rural dealers in sharecropper cabins. The writers and Trammell well capture the jovial, code-like patter between a drug dealer and a customer behaving as if friends when their interplay is simply a business arrangement. As addicts do, Sonny holds out hope for the redemption of an "if only" act—if only he can reconcile with his wife, then everything will be fine. He'll have his old life back. To that end, he buys a card for their tenth anniversary, and in the course of one momentous day and night, steals a pawned pendant and, through circuitous circumstances, must go to extraordinary lengths to try to retrieve it after it's taken from him.

By the end, the film's languid quality has gotten a bit turgid, and the repeated scenes and shots, initially evocative of jolted memory and hazy, drug-addled thinking, become simply repetitious. The time devoted to them might have been better used to give us insight into Sonny's stupendously steep fall from successful business owner to crack addict, since the sheer depth of the descent makes it an unusual pattern. Fortunately, the gorgeous gloss of cinematographer Alan McIntyre Smith compensates to a large degree, since the movie is shot so beautifully it seems to elevate the story to a level of celestial significance. I was astonished to see that Smith, who also shot McCann's White Rabbit (2013), apparently has worked most steady as a cinematographer of shorts and the 2009-2013 TLC reality show "Four Weddings." What gives? McCann is a skillful director whose work deserves to be seen more widely. But Smith? If he's not doing major features soon, it means that Hollywood is on crack.

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