Overview: Three Texas teens find themselves in an unenviable situation after stealing money from a ruthless boss to fund a blowout party. Rough and Tumble Films/Starz Digital Media; 2014; 92 Minutes
One Plot: During the opening scene of Bad Turn Worse, when Sue (Mackenzie Davis) regurgitates the Jim Thompson-penned adage “”There are 32 ways to tell a story, but there’s only one plot: that things are not what they seem,” what she’s really saying is, “Pay attention. You’re watching a movie that’s going to try to stay one step ahead of you.” A bold move for first time feature-length directing duo Zeke and Simon Hawkins, who toss half of their cards face up on the table before the turn. Not only are the directors and screenwriter Dutch Southern (the most Texas name in America?) letting you know that they’re going to outsmart the audience, they’re also admitting that they’re borrowing from known cinematic conventions. And they borrow shamelessly. The influences to this film are traceable and straightforward; the film’s ambition to outsmart its audience is an ever-present smirk.
32 Ways: Shades of Danny Boyle. Tones of Guy Ritchie. A smidgeon of Jeff Nichols. A sprinkle of young Scorsese. I don’t think I saw anything cutting edge or freshly conceived in Bad Turn Worse. Which makes it all the more impressive that the film, on the whole, feels invigorated, exhilarating, assured and unique. Part of that, of course, is credited to the trio of unexpectedly convincing performances from Davis, Logan Huffman, and Jeremy Allen White. The central narrative of three teenagers caught in a love triangle, two of them desperate to find something better than their current fixed position in a dead-end town, never falters, never feels forced or recycled (though it clearly is), and establishes a necessary empathetic connection to allow the climax to hit full force. Davis is a star here. This is a small budget, limited distribution movie, and one can only hope that this narrow platform can serve as the launching pad she deserves.
But Still Something New: Giff (Mark Pellegrino), the film’s central antagonist provides a break from regionally-informed cinematic conventions. Pellegrino illustrates Giff with the same telling southern villainous artifacts (a bludgeoning accent, ruthlessness, sadism) as we’ve come to expect from similar films (Killer Joe, Out of the Furnace), but manages a poetry in dialogue and a depth in contemplation around which southern hick lit films have traditionally managed to sidestep. Giff is razor smart and cynically insightful, the perfect counter to Sue’s homemade book-learnin’, the sort of bad guy one might expect from the novels of Cormac McCarthy, Wiley Cash, or William Gay.
Overall: There have been a handful of potentially game-changing debuts and breakthroughs in 2014. Bad Turn Worse, without attempting to reinvent a single minute of storytelling, deserves mention in the same breath as all of them.