Post-apocalyptic (“PA”) dramas are in no short supply these days, especially in the independent film scene. Many of these films tend to have a reach that far outstrips their grasp, though, and many of these projects fail to reach the standard set for themselves. It is a relief when a filmmaker uses their constrictions in an interesting way, twisting weaknesses around to become strengths. 5 Shells, a new PA drama from writer/director Paul S. Myers, strips away most of the extraneous matter from the standard apocalypse tale and presents a desolate and utterly convincing near-future. Further, he uses a small cast to great effect in giving the impression of a hopeless, quiet world where everyone must struggle bitterly to survive.
As the film opens, sisters Matti (Kelsey Hutton) and Joslyn (Eve Kozikowski) hide under the floorboards of their home while someone murders their parents. After the raiders leave, Matti and Joslyn find their parents and bury their bodies. Matti finds five shotgun shells by her father’s corpse and shortly after the burial decides that she and Joslyn should leave their home to go find their grandmother. Armed with a single-barrel shotgun and those five shells, the girls set off on the open road. Before too long they encounter Frank (Chad Brummett) and Stanton (Lincoln Mark), and while Joslyn seems to trust them, Matti is unwilling to take her hands off the shotgun. Unsurprisingly, this turns out to be a good idea, as not everyone in this lonely, empty world is who they seem to be.
5 Shells excels at creating a bleak tone that permeates every frame of the film. Matti and Joslyn’s trip takes them on the road, but it’s long abandoned, with only an occasional broken-down vehicle in their way. Most of the time they travel through wilderness and desert, and the former towns they stumble across are utterly empty. Matti has a series of brightly-colored dream sequences, but most of 5 Shells is shot with a muted, flat look that lends itself well to the film’s atmosphere. Occasional wide shots of the sky and fields bring to mind Terence Malick; this is often a very beautiful film to look at, and the performances of the mostly very young cast are great. Kelsey Hutton is especially good as Matti, who becomes the center of the film’s attention after picking up the shotgun. There is hardly a shot in the film in which she is not carrying, aiming, or clutching at it, so much so that it becomes a significant part of her character.
Perhaps the major stumbling block of 5 Shells is its opening credit claim that it was “suggested by” The Wizard of Oz. At the beginning of the film, Matti reads from the book to Joslyn as she falls asleep, and during dream sequences Matti seems to be literally walking through the pages of the book toward the Emerald City. However, other than these direct nods, 5 Shells doesn’t have much of anything to do with The Wizard of Oz, at least no more than any other similar PA road trip movie. The metaphor doesn’t hold together, and its occasional intrusion into the narrative is actually distracting. Without the Wizard of Oz conceit, 5 Shells would be a great entry into the crowded indie PA genre. As it is, it’s still head and shoulders above many other indie PA films, but the nagging idea that the audience is supposed to make The Wizard of Oz fit with the film’s events is confounding and detracts from the film’s otherwise powerfully spare storytelling.
BRINKfilm released 5 Shells on limited edition DVD on 16 July 2013. Special features include a commentary by writer/director Paul S. Myers, the film’s trailer and a “making of” featurette. Find out more about the film’s production at the official site: http://5shellsmovie.com