In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that this particular review is the result of a direct request from the writer and director of A Public Ransom, Pablo D’Stair. Late Monday night I received an email from Mr. D’Stair, a bit of electronic cold calling, alerting me to the existence of his feature debut and requesting that I give it my time and consideration. I was intrigued and, I suppose, a little bit flattered to receive such a request, thanks in no small part to the calculated serendipity of the interwebs. I sent a reply, had a brief back and forth with Mr. D’Stair, found him to be quite amiable, and here we are.
Naturally, knowing absolutely nothing about my solicitor – which is merely a term of formal endearment; not a penny was paid for my time – I took to Google to see what I could find. Though this is Pablo D’Stair’s first feature film, at just over thirty years old he is the author of forty-some novels/novellas, several collections of short fiction, and is a comparably prodigious writer about film (including five separate essays on The Canyons, of all movies). One of his more recent novels, Regard, was favorably reviewed by Brett Easton Ellis himself, in return for D’Stair’s generous support of the crowdfunding campaign for The Canyons. He has collaborated with the Washington D.C. based band Bellflur (who provided a handful of songs for A Public Ransom), and is the co-founder of the independent press KUBOA. Clearly, Mr. D’Stair is no layabout. Hats off to him for that.
A Public Ransom was directed by D’Stair, based on his short story of the same name, and prepared for the screen by D’Stair and Goodloe Byron. An equally prolific and versatile sort, Byron is also an author in addition to being a musician and an artist (and perhaps a descendant of a Maryland political dynasty?). Byron is also in the cast of A Public Ransom, playing the part of Bryant, joined by Helen Bonaparte, as Rene, and Carlyle Edwards, as Steven. A few more peripheral characters are mentioned but are neither seen nor heard. Steven is our antagonistic protagonist, as it were, and he monopolizes the screen time, always smoking, almost always walking (or pacing), and when alone onscreen (which is not uncommon) frequently speaking into a phone.
As the film’s official synopsis would have it, “Steven is a self-serving, amoral author of very mediocre talent.” He’s also a talkative fellow, whose manner of speaking meanders between pretension, profanity, awkward formality, and literary self-consciousness. Carlyle Edwards’s performance has something of the manic (and verbose) but oddly measured affect of a Quentin Tarantino cameo if it were stretched to a feature length film, eschewing Tarantino’s pop culture fodder and tempered by a more benign (and less menacing) version of David Thewlis’s unsettling performance in the Mike Leigh film Naked. Edwards does an adequate job – though I wish he wouldn’t flail around quite so much – portraying a genuinely unlikable prick whose cardinal sin ends up being his ineffectuality.
At the beginning of the film Steven is caught in his infidelity and tossed out by his wife. While walking to the home of a friend, Rene, he sees a flyer, messily done up in crayon, with a child’s self-portrait, the improbably misspelled announcement “MISNNGS, HLEPP ME?” and a phone number. Steven calls the number and arranges to meet with the man on the other end of the phone, Bryant, who tepidly insists that the flyer is not a prank as Steven had assumed. The would-be kidnapper suggests that Steven pay a $2000 ransom for his unseen captive and gives him two weeks to come up with the money. Over the next several days Bryant insinuates himself into Steven’s life, befriending (and bedding) Rene, and arranging to have one of Steven’s stories published by a local publisher, Philip Dross (whose name doesn’t inspire faith in the imminence of fame or riches).
Steven is – in addition to being a grade A asshole – a general failure in the real world, despite being a legend in his own mind. He is unemployed and unpossessed of the drive to do anything about it. He fancies himself a writer but has nothing to show for it. In Bryant’s arrangement to have Steven’s story published there’s a vague intimation of Faustian bargain – or the more American iteration, Robert Johnson’s fabled meeting at the crossroads – especially considering that the story submitted to Dross is authored by Bryant and then re-titled (if not lightly edited) by Steven.
As the week wears on, Steven becomes increasingly unsettled by Bryant. He is certainly considering whether or not Bryant’s story about his captive is indeed true (and if he should pay the ransom), but is never convinced or concerned enough to do anything about it. In the end, there really is a missing girl and some dire consequences, but it is never entirely clear whether Bryant legitimately has anything to do with either. Regardless, Rene comes to know of it, and is convinced enough to disavow Steven (or is convincing enough to suggest that she is now repulsed by, not in cahoots with, her recent lover). She offers the verdict on Steven: “No matter what he [Bryant] did or didn’t do, at least he didn’t do nothing.” Steven is the worst kind of failure – the sort who never even bothered.
Perhaps in Pablo D’Stair’s book, that's as clear a condemnation as any. It’s easy to imagine that someone so creatively driven could see villainy in inertia. Personally, I’m afraid I have more in common with the villain than the hero in that particular archetype. And yet, I admire the hero, as much as I find myself wanting more from his work.
As a narrative, A Public Ransom has promise, genuine potential in character and plot. The aesthetic is reminiscent of early Richard Linklater – Slacker and, especially, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books. (Not incidentally, D’Stair says that his film owes a “spiritual debt” to early Bresson, Fassbinder, Jarmusch, and Akerman.) The dialogue is at times overwrought, but not inappropriate for its characters or the mood of the piece. The cinematography and the staging of the action, as it were, are most wanting. Director of photography Paul Vanbrocklin has an eye for composition, but the visual lexicon is far too restricted (at least for my tastes), consisting overwhelmingly of full and medium shots, level with the subject and lacking substantial depth. Because most scenes are long takes and static shots, the film is inert, visually and emotionally unmoving. Combined with the slightly sepia-toned black and white palette, the wordiness of the script, and the utter banality of the suburban American setting, watching A Public Ransom can be an endurance test.
Of course, our protagonist suffers from the same sort of inertia, but he’s not a subdued sort, and he finds himself in the midst of intrigue and uncertainty. The film’s ability to affect the viewer would benefit from having some of that narrative energy expressed with the camera. That’s not to say the film’s visual approach doesn’t work at all. Its very first scene makes the most of the static shot, using the blocking to cleverly vary what we see. In contrast, the last scene of the film utilizes another static shot, but this time the blocking not only lacks variety but makes little sense besides – Rene is confronting Steven and his failure to act, but she spends almost the entire scene facing away from him and toward the camera.
On the whole, A Public Ransom makes much with little. (I’d venture to guess that cigarettes, or perhaps music licensing, were the most expensive item on the budget.) Despite what may be the film’s shortcomings, the effort is inspiring, enough to pique interest in the other creative efforts of Pablo D’Stair and Goodloe Byron. It would not be at all surprising if A Public Ransom is someday just the first in a much larger and more varied oeuvre.