Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Journey To Realize “We’re All In This Together:” A Bag Of Hammers

The Good: Interesting characters, Good pacing, Decent acting
The Bad: Virtually nonexistent plot, Miserable mood.
The Basics: A Bag Of Hammers has remarkably mature performances by two actors who have often been cast as slackers.

It seems that lately, I’ve been watching a lot of independent films. I like that; with so many mainstream films burning up the hits on my blog, I figure the independent films I review are good for me. After all, maybe one of the quirky, obscure films I take the time to watch and evaluate may lead a reader to discover a film they really want to watch or avoid on DVD, when avoiding the mainstream works in theaters this month. I always try to leave readers with an idea of whether or not the film I am reviewing is one that is worth their time and whether or not they should bother watching it. In the case of A Bag Of Hammers, I am actually not sure where I stand on it. It is certainly in the upper half of an “average” rating, but not much more than that.

A Bag Of Hammers is a simple and direct film and I started out enjoying it and finished enjoying it, but I was mostly ambivalent to the film in the middle. Ironically, considering how much I like True Blood and Carrie Preston in that show, the portions of A Bag Of Hammers that contain Carrie Preston are actually my least favorite and when she ultimately left the film, I found I enjoyed it all the more. And, more than any film that I can recall in recent memory, A Bag Of Hammers had a montage sequence I enjoyed near the end more than any other film.

Ben and Alan are grifters, taking their valet parking sign to cemeteries and art galleries and robbing cars that are left with them. Alan is Melanie’s brother and he shares some of his cuts from the jobs with her. Melanie, still sore over being abandoned by Alan as a kid, acts as his conscience and she works hard to do the right thing, while still living off his largess. When Lynette and her son, Kelsey, come looking for a place to stay following Hurricane Katrina, the guys rent the mother and a son a house. Melanie quickly gets frustrated at the squalid conditions in which Kelsey lives and she tries to report Lynette to the authorities, who are predictable apathetic.

When Lynette kills herself, Alan and Ben hide the evidence of how Kelsey lives from the police in order to effectively take custody of Kelsey. Wanting to raise Kelsey causes a rift to form between Alan and Ben, with Ben wanting to turn the child over to the proper authorities and continue their slacking and grifting together, but Alan seeing the boy as a chance for some form of redemption.

A Bag Of Hammers is a weird little dramedy and the awkward moments are enough to chill the viewer with their realism and the harshness of the world they portray. And yet, Alan and Ben are fun characters and Alan’s arc, especially, is a quest for redemption that is deeply touching. Yes, the story of a car thief who wants to raise a kid illegally becomes remarkably touching.

The strength of A Bag Of Hammers comes very much from the performances in the film. The cast of virtual unknowns – Carrie Preston is one of the biggest names in the film and Amanda Seyfried shockingly has little more than a cameo in the movie – is powerfully good. In fact, Chandler Canterbury, who plays Kelsey has such potent deliveries and some of the lines he is given are so simple on the page, but so powerful when he speaks them. He has more gravitas than any young actor to come up in recent memory.

Jake Sandvig, whose work I was familiar with from Fired Up! (reviewed here!) and Easy A (reviewed here!) completely upsets his typecasting in the role of Alan. Alan starts as Sandvig’s usual slacker role that has made him a gawky, but fun character actor. But in A Bag Of Hammers he has an energy and he tightens up his body language as the film goes on to present a character who is not only serious, but realistic for the level of responsibility he commits to. All of a sudden, Alan is a plausible father figure and Sandvig sells the transition like no other. Jason Ritter comes to the role of Ben with simple, smirking good looks, but rises to the occasion in the end.

Amanda Seyfried makes good use of her three or four minutes total screentime and Carrie Preston is fine as the deadbeat, down-on-her-luck Lynette. The scene-stealer is Rebecca Hall as Melanie. Melanie is the conscience of the little triumvirate, but Hall smartly plays the role with minimal heart (letting Sandvig pick up that responsibility). The result is that Hall is able to deliver some of the wriest lines in A Bag Of Hammers and present some of the most awkward humor in the most organic and funny fashion.

Ultimately, I’m not sure why I am not more enthusiastically endorsing A Bag Of Hammers; I liked it, but maybe tonight I was not in the mood for a film that had such an oppressive mood to it. The movie is enjoyable, not incredible, but has little I can point to that was not well-executed.

For other independent films, please check out my reviews of:
Daydream Nation
Mouth To Mouth


See how this film stacks up against all other movies I have reviewed by visiting my Movie Review Index Page where works are organized from best to worst!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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