A Raindance Film Festival review of RESTIVE by Timothy E. RAW and video interviews with the film's director JEREMIAH JONES & lead actress MARIANNA PALKA
An independent film about a mother and son fleeing an abusive husband through the Texas wilderness – with two vengeful brothers hot on her trail – might sound like a prime slice of real estate on the bottom shelf of Blockbuster, where micro-budgeted throwbacks to seventies pantheon titles (Straw Dogs, I Spit on Your Grave) go to die after playing like gangbusters to an over-enthusiastic genre crowd at Frightfest. To see Jeremiah Jones' directorial debut playing in competition at this year's Raindance film festival gave me hope that Restive would be so much more than the kind of shooting-high-but falling-short genre schlock only video store clerks with too much time on their hands get excited about. As it turns out, Restive does so much more (and then some) than what is expected of it. Out of the relentless chase that drives the picture emerges a lacerating exploration of the ties that bind which is almost impossible to take in all with one viewing. Not settling for grab-bag emulation of what inspired him, trading substance for exploitation à la The Devil's Rejects, Jones' Texas set-gothic noir is an ambiguous psychological investigation of one patriarch's instinctual and uncontrollable capacity for violence and the survivalist instincts of his oppressed wife, rubbing raw against a cycle of guilt she is still unable to break even in the midst of fighting for her life.
Restive is a challenging, unpredictable film that never allows the audience to get too comfortable, right from the sit-up-and-pay-attention opening of Braker (Michael Mosley) crouched on a chair in the attic in some seemingly autistic pose. As the camera pushes in on him, it appears to animate this shell of a man. Apparently aware of the camera's presence, Braker comes right up close, looking his jury right in the eye and howling accusations of his wife's betrayal down the lens. This visual abstraction perfectly encapsulates the feeling of a man wrestling with where jealously has led him, though we can't be sure of its source. A sudden cut to an out-of breath Jeva (Marianna Palka), tearing through the undergrowth, with Braker's wailing still ringing in our ears begs the question – is this a mind's eye view of a tormented husband raging against consequences he no longer has any control over, or a guilty wife thinking of the vengeful husband she ran out on after poisoning him?
And so the main plot of Restive is presented in a series of flashbacks and reminiscences, though whom these recollections belong to is always in question. The indefinite perspective, which continually shifts throughout scenes – themselves a hazy sift of memory – is for first time filmmaker Jones, an exercise in making the audience experience first hand its inherent duplicitousness. Using intertwining fissures of things remembered as the web work of his plot, Jones becomes his own reticent narrator, as untrustworthy as the steadily disintegrating psyches of his characters. Half-formed discussions of struggles regarding faith and doubt pervade much of the dialogue, but there's never quite enough to know where the director stands or whom he sides with – the viewer's own search for understanding and clarity is what keeps you craning forward enough that you only ever need the edge of your seat. This anxious uncertainty exerts such a stranglehold that Jones completely does away with cheap splatter thrills and stages a full frontal attack on his protagonist's consciousness, in effect creating a ninety-two minute panic attack. We never see Braker's fists connect with his wife, but we feel the psychic bruise of the blows hanging in the air afterwards as they sit in discordant tableaux at opposite ends of the living room. There are no scenes of histrionic souring in their relationship, just a series of increasingly sorrowful looks between them, expressing an ever-widening chasm. Braker venturing to say "I love you" late in the film is a parodic gesture, rotten and hollow.
Wherever possible, Jones opts for a quiet intensity, and similar restraint is shown in the scenes of Braker reacting to the poison Jeva has fed him. His hostility is apparent, but given his weakness in that moment it's left to simmer without ever breaking the surface. Rather than have Braker spitting clichéd expletives and calling her a whore, the effect of the poison renders him incapable of speech. To see this physically domineering man brought to his knees, writhing around on the floor, makes the consequences and repercussions of Jeva's actions that much more terrifying.
One remarkable example of Jones' ability to craft small moments that resonate long after the film ends is a confrontation in which Jeva stabs one of her pursuers. Rather than playing straight to the gorehounds and focusing the camera on the knife wound, Jones (also acting as his own editor) inserts a series of flashcuts showing a pivotal moment in Jeva's past, when her marriage decidedly went south: locked in the basement by her husband and unable to get out, she repeatedly yanks the dangling light switch, giving one the impression of a blinking hazard light.
As a warped dream of male territorial revenge, Jeva is the province upon which the two brothers, charged with capturing her, must wreak retribution. Restive's philosophical bent – evidenced in multiple conversations between her pursuers – places it more in the same grindhouse of a Peckinpah study of debased manhood, than the backwoods sadistic horror from which it takes its ashen, grey woodlands. As Jeva, the film rests on the shoulders of Marianna Palka, who displays the same suspect unpredictability that characterized her sadly underseen writing/directing debut Good Dick, but this time, as a desperate mother instead of a porn addict, she's infinitely more sympathetic. With a scarcity of dialogue in a film geared towards "pure cinema", her performance largely consists of grunts and groans becoming steadily more haggard as she pushes herself toward anywhere-but-here collapse. Ben Lukas Boysen's memorably discordant score suggests a slow but sure tightening of air passages, largely taking his cue from Palka's eyes; blood vessels set to pop and rippling with fight-or-flight adrenaline. Escaping from her domestic prison, Jeva finds herself in a much crueler world without order, one clearly relished by a director whose imagistic presentation reveals a compositional eye for chaos.
Video interviews: director JEREMIAH JONES and actress MARIANNA PALKA
This exclusive interview with director Jeremiah Jones was conducted for DVD Outsider by Timothy E. RAW at the Raindance TV Studio on Tuesday 4th October 2011.
This exclusive interview with actress Mirianna Palka was conducted for DVD Outsider by Timothy E. RAW at the Apollo Cinema in London on Wednesday 5th October 2011. The light levels at the location were very low and the background noise a little on the lively side, hence the slightly sub-par image quality of the first half (a camera adjustment in the second corrected this).
Restive screened Tuesday 4th October 2011 at 20.45 and Wednesday 5th October 2011 at 14.15 as part of the 2011 Raindance Film Festival.