Just months after releasing his debut film, A Public Ransom, writer/director Pablo D’Stair is back with Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief. He’s got the band back together, so to speak, and though some things have changed, much remains the same. In my review for A Public Ransom I suggested that it could someday be the beginning of a long and varied oeuvre. Surely D’Stair’s second film shows signs of his ongoing evolution as a storyteller trying to make use of a visual medium.
Carlyle Edwards returns as the lead, this time as Leonard – security guard, beleaguered husband, and adulterer – whose life is once again complicated by a mysterious interloper played by Goodloe Byron, Samuel, whose intentions are unclear and who gives little reason to be trusted. Helen Bonaparte too returns, this time as Lana, Leonard’s wife and maybe, just maybe, the crux of the narrative biscuit. There are others on the periphery – Lana’s concerned brother, Bernard (Adam Grayson); Leonard’s partner in adultery, Fiona (Laura Anne Walling); Fiona’s cuckolded husband, Tim (Toby Jacobs); and a private detective (Carlos Gonzalez-Fernandez) – but the story once again revolves primarily around Edwards and Bonaparte’s characters and the conflict created by Byron’s.
As in A Public Ransom, the success of Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief depends heavily on the performance of Carlyle Edwards. He’s somewhat less manic here – still smoking and flailing, but doing markedly less of both. And there is in this film something about his voice that is peculiar, occasionally singular, almost intriguing – a bit like Jason Lee doing an impression of Jimmy Stewart doing an impression of Jack Lemon – which is to his credit, because this is as before a dialogue-heavy, action-light affair.
Progressing somewhat from A Public Ransom, which favored long, static takes in which the actors moved a little and talked a lot, D’Stair and his DP, Paul Vanbrocklin, have refined their visual vocabulary by using the same sort of shots but using more of them. Things are also more angular this time around. Still, I find myself longing for the occasional close-up, over-the-shoulder, shot-reverse-shot sort of thing we’ve come to expect for dialogue in cinema. The film’s official synopsis uses the word “claustrophobic,” which is apt and attributable largely to the preponderance of these low-angle shots and long takes (and black and white and lots of talking and a story that keeps you guessing). But I wonder if it also has something to do with the fact that very few (if any?) shots are repeated throughout the film; there’s something odd and unsettling about this apparent forward progression of the image that helps to eliminate a feeling of ever being on familiar territory.
Another odd and unsettling thing shows up in the sound design: a roughly four-second-long loop that sounds like the wind-off groove of an LP – like the crackle, pop, and hiss of a vinyl record – that plays throughout the entire film. It is clearly audible, sometimes even loud enough to compete with the dialogue, effectively with the film itself. Because there is also in the picture a subtle speckling, like dust on celluloid, I wonder if the sound of a projector might have been more appropriate. Either way, there can be something charming about adding analog artifacts to a production clearly digital, but I found them distracting in this case. The LP noise in particular becomes grating, and it drew my attention away from the story a number of times.
And yet, if these two films are any indication, Pablo D’Stair has affection for a lo-fi, neo-noir aesthetic that may not be so easy to achieve with the technology most widely available. I’d like to see him exploit (and flourish within) the limitations of that technology, not appropriate the minor hallmarks of another era, but these are the limitations of my own aesthetic prejudice. For someone as driven and prolific as D’Stair, growth is only a matter of time. I look forward to his third film, no doubt some time later this year.