January 7, 2016
Heaven Strewn – US, 2011
I like films like Jeremiah Gurzi’s Heaven Strewn. I admire the way they relate completely credible stories about characters that most of us can instantly recognize. Such tales often unravel slowly and frankly, and they avoid the current tendency to be clever at the expense of being true to the moment. Heaven Strewn is about realistic people in a situation that feels utterly authentic. I suspect that most of us have known people like the film’s two lead characters – friends since childhood who find themselves succumbing to the unpredictable ebb and flow that sometimes afflicts friendships as time goes on. I suspect most viewers will see in them either themselves and their friends or people they once knew, long-time pals who seemed to alternate between drifting apart and coming together, as if fate couldn’t make up its mind whether they would bring out the best in each other or be the catalyst for each other’s eventual downfall. This is the case with the friendship at the center of Heaven Strewn.
In the film’s opening scene, we watch as a young man named Mickey (Wyatt Denny) listens to a news report on finance while washing counterfeit money. Disheveled, very unshaven, and perhaps suffering from hyperactive tendencies, Mickey resembles something the cat dragged in after a late-night party that lasted into the wee hours of the morning. When the phone rings, we hear only his side of the conversation, yet we get the gist. Someone is very angry with him and demanding money. For his part, Mickey puts on a brave, but flustered face and suggests that he’ll do something to get back at his blackmailers, yet nothing in his mannerisms so far suggests he is capable of it.
The other half of this long-term friendship is Jasper (Rob Tepper). When we meet him, he is at home with his very pregnant girlfriend, Anna. A reporter suffering from writer’s block, Jasper seems both dependable and slightly weak-willed. When Anna leaves for work, he assures her that he’ll get to work; instead, he lies in bed waiting for inspiration to strike. Of course, it doesn’t. Later, he meets up with Mickey at an AA meeting. They talk for a while, joke around about things that perhaps only they would ever find funny, and before long are heading out of town for a weekend of digging around for potentially valuable meteorites. It’s Mickey’s idea, and his hunt for buried meteorites just happens to take place in the vicinity of a mysterious car and a buried suitcase. Coincidence?
What transpires next is both exciting and frightening, for there is an ever-present sense of danger in every successive scene, even ones in which Mickey and Jasper are doing things that are not out of the ordinary. It’s as if the suitcase is Pandora’s Box, and it’s opening the equivalent of freeing a vengeful god from its captive, dormant state. This is not completely novel, yet to the film’s credit, it avoids the traps and clichés that so many other similarly-themed films have tread down. Mickey and Jasper’s survival will take speed and wit, not machismo or sudden bouts of bravery, and the danger they are in comes not in the form of classic movie villains who talk and move in a way carefully designed to provoke fear in both the protagonists and the audience. Here, danger comes in the form of average-looking people for whom violence is simply a way of life.
The film benefits greatly from Gurzi’s smart screenplay, which is replete with realistic dialogue and authentic situations. As a director, he’s one to watch. I admired the way his camera is a fly on the wall in some scenes and an all-seeing eye in others. It lingers on cheerful conversations, and what it records seems so natural that it is hard to believe it was anything but spontaneous. At other moments, the camera switches perspectives, raising the tempo and clearly demonstrating the level of hazard that exists. Gurzi also understands that for a film to be effective, it does not need to tie up all of its loose ends or have characters act logically. Sometimes people are just incapable of doing what to the audience seems obvious or wise.
Heaven Strewn is well acted and well written with surprising performances and a powerful build. It deserves to find an audience. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
3 and a half stars