Written and Directed by Skylar Lawson
Starring Delil Baran, Francesca Anderson, Ronan Colfer, Dylan Grunn
The Great Depression was a time that found much of the United States trapped in devastating poverty and widespread unemployment. Lasting from 1929 to 1933, it was the worst economic fall in the history of the industrialized world.
This was an era of bank robbers and bootleggers where guns ruled, and violence was a natural occurrence from men on both sides of the law.
The Midwest and parts of the South gave birth to many infamous criminals such as John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, Ma Barker, Pretty Boy Floyd, and of course, Bonnie and Clyde.
These outlaws carved out their own bloody place in American history, as each became Public Enemy Number One at some point with most of them suffering violent fates.
Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde became folk heroes to some who saw them as “Robin Hood” figures, stealing back from the evil bankers who lost their money.
These people were no heroes. They were thieves and killers; their stories being much darker than the portraits history books would paint over the decades.
Many films exist about the criminals from that dangerous era but only a chosen few show the time in its proper, more realistically serious tone.
Cleverly designed in thirteen darkly captivating chapters, “Whelm”, is directed and written by Skyler Lawson
Set in 1930s Indiana during the height of the Great Depression, the film follows two brothers, August (Ronan Colfer) and Reed (Dylan Grunn). The two find themselves in the middle of a rivalry between a dangerous bank robber and a wild young criminal. All become players in a larger scheme that will see each man come to their respective brinks.
The performances by the unknown cast are uniformly good, with Delil Baran standing out as Alexander Alexy, a man who is always smarter than anyone he encounters.
Alexy is an interesting character and a true enigma for much of the film. He is never what he seems to be, and his arc will surprise those paying attention. Baran inhabits this strange man with an uncanny knack for survival completely and proves he is an actor to watch. Alexy’s design, with his tilted brim hat, dark clothing, and envious determination, suggests moments of Daniel Plainview from Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” and director Lawson introduces the character in a visual homage to Anderson’s film.
Lawson and his cinematographer Edward Herrera shot their piece on Kodak 16mm, and the collaboration produces some striking imagery. The film is blanketed in a dangerous tone and the patient fluidity of the camerawork never loses the screenplay’s dark center. Slow pans over the Midwestern landscape and the shaping of every frame allows both the design of the scenes and the well-crafted characterizations to have their impact. Lawson is a filmmaker who respects the art of filmmaking and the styles laid down by the great filmmakers of the 1970s.
There are hints of Malick, Leone, and Cimino in Lawson and Herrera’s design. The two find the effortless lyrical poetry that flowed throughout the works of those great directors.
But “Whelm” is not a mere pastiche of “tips of the hat”. While his skills as a director are unquestionably shaped by the filmmakers he admires, Lawson’s feature film debut announces his own voice and a unique style that is refreshing in today’s pre-packaged and sanitized Hollywood product.
The film was shot in Indiana and premiered at the state’s 2019 Heartland Film Festival. It was set to tour the festival circuit until the COVID-19 pandemic crushed its hopes. Gravitas Ventures acquired the North American rights and now Lawson’s film is set for a 35mm Roadshow version at select theaters beginning August 13, the day it also premieres on streaming services. I implore anyone who is in a town where this film will be showing to see it on the big screen.
“Whelm” is not interested in being another spoke in the wheel of the typical gangster picture. Skylar Lawson’s film is a meditative and immersive crime drama; a mood piece that comes from something deeper and more personal.
R, 114 Minutes, Endrow Pictures/Gravitas Ventures