Last Kind Words (Kevin Barker, 2012)
When I saw this flick up for grabs on Netflix while I was trolling the "Popular on Netflix" queue a couple of weeks ago (I am not ashamed to admit I do this at least once a month), I added it on the off chance that some indie director had taken a crack at adapting a Tom Piccirilli novel to the screen, something that is way overdue. I did so even though I know that any film adaptation of Piccirilli's work would probably not even come close to the original, though I imagine the noir stuff like The Last Kind Words would be easier to adapt than the crazy Southern gothic stuff of his I like even better (A Choir of Ill Children is not only my favorite Piccirilli novel, it is one of my favorite books of all time). And I figured, hey, if it's not Piccirilli, and it's just another DTV picture, what's the most I've got to lose, an hour and a half of a work-from-home Tuesday when I could be watching another equally crappy DTV movie? I tell you all this to give you an idea of the mindset I was in when I hit play on Last Kind Words. I wasn't expecting much, and I hate to admit that as soon as I saw Brad Dourif, I was expecting even less. I love Brad Dourif, always have, but man, it is hard to get the stink of Fading of the Cries out of your head, you know? And so to say Last Kind Words blindsided me would be something of an understatement. But it does make this review quite a bit easier to write, because it gives me a point of comparison. I have a (very) short shelf of the DTV horror flicks that, for my money, should have gotten theatrical releases, because they're a damn sight better than pretty much any horror film that's been turned out by Hollywood in the past decade. Cube is, of course, the one everyone is familiar with, but most horror geeks have probably seen Shallow Ground, DeadBirds, or Pony Trouble!. The real nerds have dug far enough in to have found perhaps the best treasures in the bunch, Baby Blues and Lockout. Now I'm adding Last Kind Words to that short shelf; it stands easily with any of the above. And for the love of Johnson County, it's good to have the old Brad Dourif back!
Plot: Bud (Pirates of Silicon Valley's Clay Wilcox), his wife Ida (Stake Land's Marianne Hagan), and his son Eli (Star Trek's Spencer Daniels) have moved back to Bud's rural Kentucky hometown in the wake of some sort of personal shake-up (possibly Bud losing his job, but if it is ever explicitly stated, I don't remember), going to work for Bud's old next-door neighbor Waylon (Dourif). Eli, being teenaged and footloose, is less than thrilled with the arrangement until, while wandering in the woods near Waylon's place, he comes upon Amanda (Repeaters' Alexia Fast), tall, willowy, blonde/redhead, and all the sudden the backwoods are waaaaaaaaay more interesting...even though Eli left a raven-haired love (Please Give beauty Sarah Steele) back in the city. And as if throwing a love triangle into the mix isn't enough, Eli's wandering through the woods starts uncovering more rural Kentucky secrets-things that the locals would rather have stay buried. And to top it all off, it seems that (a) Eli may be replaying some years-earlier drama involving Bud and Waylon, and (b) Waylon is in hock up to his ears to the local loanshark, Mr. Peterson (Hit Me's Rich Williams), who's getting mighty impatient.
And you know, I didn't realize it until I started writing that plot synopsis, but we kinda did get a Tom Piccirilli Southern gothic movie here. I wouldn't characterize it as horror in any sense; it is more of that kind-of-indefinable "supernatural drama" genre that Asian film industries do so well (Japan, India, and Hong Kong, especially) with a couple of mysteries mixed in beneath the surface. But the real draw, at least for me, ended up being the romance angle, once the city girlfriend was introduced; Barker, adapting a story by Amy Riherd Miller, miffed the plotline a couple of times (he was, erm, less than subtle in the scene where Eli realizes he's in a situation where he probably has to choose, and then, while the ultimate resolution of the love-triangle subplot is all too realistic, and very powerfully shot-for which I should be giving him props, no?-it still feels as if there should have been one more scene there. Even though there probably shouldn't. Watch the movie and see for yourself), but it really stood out for the realism and tenderness with which Barker handled the material. Which carried over into the rest of the movie, really, though how much realism one can reasonably inject into what is, at its heart, a simple ghost story is questionable. That just makes this movie all the more impressive.
I think I just talked myself into kicking the rating I originally gave this movie up half a star. Which doesn't sound like much, but to put it in perspective, three-and-a-half star movies are not automatically entered onto my thousand-best list (as of this writing-August 9, 2013-my spreadsheet lists 690 titles to which I've given three and a half stars; 284 of them are on the thousand-best list). Four-star movies are. That's the most important half a star in my movie-ranking hierarchy, when it comes right down to it, and the more I think about the little details in this movie, the more I think it deserves it. This is very, very good stuff, and it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. See it sooner rather than later. ****