Charles Taylor reviews 'illtown' directed by Nick Gomez and starring Lili Taylor and Michael Rapaport.

Published February 27, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

The voice that Nick Gomez finds in his third film, "illtown," is so original that searching for comparisons doesn't get you anywhere. There really is no other movie like it. Gomez has leapt from the street-level naturalism of his first two films, "Laws of Gravity" and "New Jersey Drive," into a virtuoso new style, hallucinatory and elliptical, where dreams have the concreteness of reality and reality the inescapable pull of dreams.

"illtown" opens with a camera tracking forward down dark, grimy basement hallways, a junkie hangout. The feeling is like one of those dreams where you're drawn into a place you don't want to enter but are powerless to resist. The whole film has that same deliberate undertow, and something else of dreams: their precariousness. At one point I realized I was sitting in my seat as quiet and still as I could be, as if some sudden noise or movement would cause the whole thing to disintegrate. The characters -- small-time Florida smack dealers, their bosses, customers, police connections and even smaller-time runners -- are called upon to account for every sin of their past, and you know there will be no escape until all debts are paid in full. That may be the simplest reason the film feels so quiet, almost hushed: They know that protesting fate won't do any good.

"illtown" was shown at the 1996 New York Film Festival but has taken a year and a half to open in theaters. No distributor picked it up, so the film is being distributed by the Shooting Gallery, the independent production company that made it. You can see why the "independent" distributors that are owned by the major studios would pass on it -- it's too unusual and too personal to attract a mass audience. But wasn't there even one small distribution company willing to take a chance on this movie? "illtown" has already opened and closed in several major cities. Many of you may still have a chance to see it at independent specialty theaters; most of you may have to wait for it to come out on video. But "illtown" needs to be seen, not just for itself, but because moviegoers should be aware of the economic realities of what films get made and released. If a daring and singular movie by a uniquely talented young filmmaker can fail to attract a distributor, let alone an audience, then all the current hype about the strength of independent films is just cant.

It doesn't help Gomez's visibility that he's attuned to his milieu but out of sync with the prevailing style. He isn't interested in his characters as an excuse for flashy violence or as a way to display his street cred. He couldn't be further in style or sensibility from Quentin Tarantino or from testosterone-jazzed Hollywood action blockbusters. In Gomez's films, the perpetrators and the victims are often hard to distinguish. He neither makes excuses for them nor condemns them.

This determination not to pull punches combined with Gomez's refusal to judge may cause some people to imagine that they're seeing flat slices of reality. That was part of the problem with his first film, "Laws of Gravity" -- too obviously influenced by "Mean Streets" and too often, in the course of long single-take scenes, feeling like an actor's exercise. "New Jersey Drive" was tighter in every way, and got at something almost every other life-in-the-'hood movie missed. In one scene, one of its young black car thieves complains to his mother that a buddy was shot by the cops for no reason. He's telling the truth, but his mother's response is a cold slap that awakens him to the reality of his life: "Oh," she says, "you need a reason to get shot nowadays? ... I don't think so." We realize we're seeing a world where even a sense of injustice has become a luxury.

The justice that comes calling in "illtown" has an Old Testament ferocity. Dante (Michael Rapaport) and Micky (Lili Taylor) are drug dealers trying to make a go of it in Florida. Devoted to each other, the two have been trying to have a baby. When Micky's deaf kid brother turns up after stealing a car and running away from home, they take him in and care for him. Gomez doesn't need to point up the obvious irony of two decent-seeming people who are naive enough to think they can sell smack as if they were running a mom-and-pop convenience store. When one of their runners is killed, Micky says in disbelief, "Now a kid's dead," and she really can't see that this possibility existed all along. She and Dante aren't lying to themselves as a means of survival. They really do see themselves as just another young couple trying to get by. What makes them recognizably human is what's anomalous about them, and it's what, in the world they inhabit, makes them targets.

The movie's angel of death is Gabriel (Adam Trese), the former partner Dante and Micky gave up to beat a jail stretch. Single-minded and frighteningly unpredictable, Gabriel circles around them, insinuating himself with the drug kingpin D'Avalon (Tony Danza), going after Dante and Micky's police protection, their runners, their customers.

It takes some time to put the pieces of that basic story together, and the material may seem too simple for the oblique, nonlinear style in which Gomez tells it. "illtown" proceeds in abstract bursts punctuated by long silences, dream sequences that don't always announce themselves as such, laconic dialogues where a glance or a gesture can hold more weight than words (in a film of characters who communicate this way, Micky's deaf brother isn't at a disadvantage). Gomez's technique, which favors character exploration and a slowly enveloping -- finally consuming -- mood, prevents the film from descending into the genre mechanics of revenge and becoming just another crime melodrama. The subject here is what's inside his characters' heads, and what's burdening their souls. The way he tells the story in concentrated pieces mirrors characters who can only see what's in front of them, who can't envision the big picture.

Any formal explanation, though, pales before the mysteriousness of the film itself. No filmmaker makes this radical a change in style with complete success. "illtown" doesn't entirely escape portentousness, in the spiritual associations of the characters' names (Dante, Gabriel) or the conception of Isaac Hayes' role (he may or may not be a police contact and/or God), and in some of the acting (as the gay Mr. Big, Danza is stuck with metaphysical lines that drop like weights). And at the end, when Gomez's meanings need to sharpen and come together, he indulges in some symbolic diffusion. But these seem trifles next to the mesmerizing effect of the film as a whole. The cinematography, by Jim Denault (who shot another of the most distinctive recent American films, Michael Almereyda's "Nadja"), is infused with the half-light before sunset, when everything seems still, suspended, fraught with anxiety. And the constant underlayer of Brian Keane's score, a sort of ambient wash, contributes to the feeling of tension. The most haunting moments here are ultimately inexplicable, like the sight of two golf carts driving over a green that's meant to denote paradise.

It's a measure of how fine Gomez's direction is that the film remains stylistically all of a piece without neglecting the actors. Rapaport, who in every other role I've seen him in has been unbelievable in a dem, dese and dose way, is authentic and pitiable. Lili Taylor, a wildly talented actress who can be very mannered, gives one of her completely genuine, empathetic performances. They're matched by Kevin Corrigan (he was the video-store clerk in "Walking and Talking") as Cisco, Dante and Micky's partner. Corrigan, a laid-back, likable presence, has the scene that sums up the movie's unresolvable feelings about its characters. Pressed by Dante, Cisco tells the story of the wife he loved who died, killed in the crash of a plane flown by a rich drunk she had befriended at a club. He relates it in the manner of a man who doesn't want to appear to be asking for sympathy, and just as your heart goes out to him, he says, "I dug up his grave. Took the body up to a vacant lot on 185th and let the stray dogs have a feast." Then, after a shrug, "Had to be done, man."

"illtown" isn't especially graphic, but I don't know when I've been so unnerved by the violence in a film. Gomez doesn't make the mistake of trying to explain the scary crew of teen dealer/assassins that Gabriel enlists to do his bidding, nor does he indulge in any overwrought op-ed page shock. He knows there's nothing that can excuse or explain the blank, affectless brutality of these dead-souled killers. Gomez finds horror in the nonchalance of it all: the smile of a kid watching a young dealer stagger as bullets hit him; the calm with which another retrieves his gun off a buddy's corpse after the kid has lost a showdown; the use of the '50s doo-wop number "We Belong Together" when a character we've come to care about meets his fate at the hands of Gabriel's scariest emissary. This is the movie where Gomez earns the Scorsese comparison. The violence here may be as abrupt and random and plausible as in any American movie since "Mean Streets."

Now, when almost all films about crime or life on the streets come with a set of standard-issue components -- explosions and car chases and shootouts on one hand, retro-hipster dialogue and clothes and music on the other -- this movie, whose style is a means to a more complex and unsettling view, startles. "illtown" is one of those movies that, after seeing it, seeps into the way the world looks to you. When a film this audacious languishes without a chance to reach the audience it deserves, all those people talking noise about the "indie revolution" might as well be speaking Martian.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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