Roulette (2013): Tackling Death and Despair
It’s a real rarity that micro-budget independent films achieve much in the ways of mainstream success in the digital age. Due to the major influx of films onto the market each year, a fractional percentage at best makes it onto the festival circuit that has potential to be picked up for distribution. However, it is also an additional pleasure to not only when this occurs, but also when it’s local in origins. Though professing no particular personal loyalty with the city of Baltimore, it cannot go without saying that it does come along with some amount of attachment. Having said that, there is little in the ways of good feelings and optimism when viewing the film Roulette.
Helmed by Erik Kristopher Myers, Roulette is a film that is rather difficult to specifically nail down with a definite stamp of approval or disapproval by the ordinary means of critical interpretation. Meaning that a film is usually the sum of its parts, and the parts of this movie in particular make it very difficult to completely surmise all thoughts on the subjects that are raised by the movie’s structure, style and content.
Initially, this is one of the better films shot on mid-grade digital cameras that has come up within recent years. One of the major stigmatisms of micro-budget digital cinema is the overall apparent quality of the work. If the film looks cheap, regardless of everything else, it will be perceived as cheap. This film has a visual order and eye for color and lighting that really only bring comparisons to other prominent digital works like Jamin Winans’ Ink (2009) and Miguel Coyula’s Memories of Overdevelopment (2010). The color grading by Martin Whittier is absolutely astounding and each scene is given a texture and tone that truly work always to the movie’s benefit.
The cinematography is strong, well framed and particularly well crafted in the area of diverting focus. Elaborating, cinematographer Jamie Bender is an adjusted student of racking focus; this movie plays with the focus of the audience because the filmmakers are in control of this experience. Unlike some directors who rely on audience involvement to choose how the movie is to be viewed and edited in the moviegoers’ minds (like Stanley Kubrick and Michael Haneke), Meyers is along the lines of a much stricter filmmaker, showing you only what he wants you to see, and audiences will experience this particular flavor of the story. This is not to say this style is better or worse than any other, and this film could be completed in a different way to achieve a similarly desired result from attendees, however it would not be this particular signature that leaves the film so strong in your mouth afterwards. Additionally, the film uses many very long takes that emphasis particular perspectives so strongly, that it is possible to loose yourself in the scene, more than trying to decide who or what is more important.
The compilation of shots is compounded by the strength of the editing. As the film initiates, the pacing is slow and very deliberate. These filmmakers want us to have this information in this particular order and at this momentum. And as the tension builds, so does the tempo of the cuts and transitions. The knowledge of how to effectively grasp and then hold onto an audience is a talent awarded to a very few film editors and likewise directors (Hal Ashby and Werner Herzog are examples of both). With the ending of the film, as all the story arcs are swirling together, the intensity and emotions of all of the central characters fueling the decent, mirroring the eclectic ending of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2001). It was one of the more effective endings to a recent film I have come across.
These elements being said, there are shortcomings to the production. Most noticeably at first is the sound editing and voice dubbing. In some of the earlier scenes in Roulette the artificial dubbing is so atrociously visible that it was distracting to what was happening on screen. And due to the dubbing, many of the actors’ performances seemed rather wooden and half-hearted at times. Though when on-location sound or more involved editing took over and was no longer at the forefront of attention, the film was completely immersing.
And though the sound editing affected the performances of the actors at parts, the acting of the cast is also a mixed bag. And it isn’t to say that one actor was bad or incapable in the whole of their performance. Actually, the cast (for the most part) was pieced together with great effect. The strength of the three main cast members are hard to judge, because all of them have the highest points and lower points in their acting, where when they excel it is acting and investment of the highest caliber. Mike Baldwin (playing Dean) was the most committed of all the actors to the role and by the end of the film his portrayal had me completely convinced.
The supporting cast was also a broad representation of talent and it was a delight seeing Jan-David Soutar in the role of Leon. Having seen Soutar in Brennen Jones’ A Midnight Run (2009) and Justin Beckenheimer’s Heaven Burns (2010), he is ranked with Jacob Womack, Ori Golad and Emily Alyn Lind in upcoming character actors with extraordinary talents.
The only actor in the whole of the ensemble that rubbed me wrong was Michelle Murad (playing the character Zoe). Her performance (which was the most highly dubbed in the film) was contrived and irritating. I am certain part of this response could be an intended effect that the filmmakers wished for, however the way it was executed was simply not at all empathetic.
However, this brings the diatribe to an end with the screenplay. As with the rest of the elements aforementioned in this review, Roulette’s screenplay is a mix between stilted and unpleasantly caricatured dialogue and deeply gripping and engrossing material. Though personal opinions toward the work of Myers is that he is a far stronger director than a writer, it would not go on to say much due to when the writing is fully developed and involving so many potent and (almost) surreal elements, there is much in top form here. As the story centers around three characters all in a support group who want to kill themselves, it devolves into a game of Russian Roulette as the audience are given the full birth of these character’s souls and pasts. The initial impression I received when the movie adopted this tone fully was that of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit.
So in summation, as was said at the start is still true at the finish. Though much could be talked about the story, it would be a real shame to ruin the full extent of the wild ride and there hasn’t ever been much of a desire for spoiling films for others. Though overall the film may not be a masterwork, but it is an effective film that plays with audience members like putty, and expertly know what response they want and how to get it. As dramatic and volatile as the content the film covers, Roulette is truly a unique experience.
FINAL RATING: ★★★★ / ☆☆☆☆☆
Also Published in The Baltimore Examiner
Written by Matthew Roe. Published: November 1, 2013