The Small Assassin
by Andrew Dowd
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Remember when the distinction between Hollywood and “independent” meant something? It wasn’t so long ago, was it? The studios made one kind of movie, maverick “indie” auteurs made another—there was a solid line between them, and you basically knew which side you were standing on with each new picture. Well, those days are behind us, and the line between Hollywood movies and “alternative cinema” has become irreparably blurred. The film culture of today is carnivorous and parasitic, with big-budget and small-budget filmmakers swapping styles and mirroring one-another’s work. The studios co-opt the techniques of Sundance prodigies, while every new hotshot writer-director dreams of Tinsletown glory. In this mixed-up age we live in, who can tell the difference between a studio-backed sub-Tarantino knock-off like Smokin’ Aces and an independently financed sub-Tarantino knock-off like Running Scared? Show of hands?
The Small Assassin is pure 21st-century indie filmmaking—slick and polished, it’s an elaborate calling card to Hollywood that boasts, with every meticulously crafted frame, its do-it-yourself pedigree. A true independent work funded entirely by private investors, this short-form epic is the product of spunk, moxie, and boundless ambition. Its Chicago-based creators exemplify the new guard of underground cinema: hungry, fresh-out-of-college artisans whose prodigious talent is eclipsed only by their pension for relentless self-promotion. “This is what we can do on our own,” the film screams. “Imagine what we could do with a studio behind us.” Yet if this new generation cross breed—a $300,000 affair that looks like a million bucks—is blatantly covetous of Hollywood conventions, it’s hardly rote or soulless at its center. Coursing beneath the picture’s respectable, antiseptically clean veneer is a crazy energy, a vein of hysterical black comedy that undercuts and enlivens its poker-faced dramatic urgency.
“Your wife doesn’t like her child,” Dr. Jeffers (Robert Breuler) ominously informs proud new father David (David Marcotte) in the opening minutes of the film. Alice (Lois Mathilda Atkins) appears instantly resentful of her infant son, convinced that the newborn has malicious intentions for her. The doctor thinks she just needs some rest. Adapted from a Ray Bradbury story of the same name, The Small Assassin starts out as an interesting examination of post-partum depression—what exactly could drive a mother to hate and fear her own child? Yet, in typical Bradbury fashion, all is not what it seems, as Alice’s worrisome paranoia proves to be a healthy response to a very real threat. Put another way: there actually is something sinister lurking in the unformed mind of this enfant terrible. Cue that chilling lullaby from Rosemary’s Baby, and settle in for a moody psychological thriller about a murderous tyke.
Silly? Inherently so, but credit its visionary producers (John Bosher, William Maursky and Kevin Moss) and hired-gun scribes (Brian Caunter, Josh Staman, and Erin Elders) for tackling the source material with straight-laced conviction—The Small Assassin is nothing if not wholly committed to its absurd premise. Director Chris Charles’ aesthetic is pure 1950s noir: shadowy dens, long climbs up spiral staircases, a score that mimics the staccato twists and turns of Bernard Herrmann’s best work. Moss, doubling as the film’s virtuoso cinematographer, infuses every scene, every shot really, with a formal elegance, finding room for retro-cool digressions. Two standouts are a North By Northwest-style train ride and a luminous, outdoors-in-the-springtime sequence that’s strongly reminiscent of Douglas Sirk.
Alas, the film is languid almost to a fault, using its spot-on period atmosphere (check out that ’50s car!) to spruce up its stretched out, Masterpiece Theater meets Tales from the Crypt narrative. Twenty minutes in, and you begin to seriously wonder where it’s headed. Thankfully, that’s right around the time The Small Assassin takes a plunge off the deep end. Because everyone involved in this stately little thriller treats its demented plot with the utmost seriousness—they play it straight, every step of the way—the film eventually melts into delirious high camp. Marcotte’s performance is a hilarious hodge-podge of affectations: he starts out as the prototypical, aw-shucks sincere ’50s husband, baffled by his wife’s erratic behavior but not nearly concerned enough about her veiled threats of infanticide. Then, in the gonzo last third, he’s crazed and hysterical, bursting into fits of disbelieving laughter and delivering a lengthy monologue that came—I’m guessing here—directly from Bradbury’s original story. The actor’s swift turn for the unhinged sets the tone for the remainder of the movie, which ends with a ghoulish twist, a nasty cliffhanger punctuated by darkly comedic parting words.
It’s here, in the juxtaposition between glossy setup and bizarre, violent payoff, that The Small Assassin obtains a giddy spark of life. You can see the idiosyncratic fingerprint of its creators, a mark that shines through the production’s smooth, rigid formalism. In a way, it’s the film’s flaws (its pacing issues, its uneven structure, its odd shift in tone) that make it such an endearing oddity. If these boys are headed for Hollywood—and The Small Assassin suggests that could be their next destination—here’s hoping they bring their artistic eccentricities with them.
Andrew Dowd is a film critic in Chicago.
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