2014 // USA // Jon Lindstrom // November 23, 2013 // Digital Theatrical Projection (Landmark Tivoli Theater)
[Full Disclosure: How We Got Away With It was one of five debut feature films in the juried New Filmmaker’s Forum competition at the 2013 St. Louis International Film Festival. I served on the NFF jury, and spoke with director Jon Lindstrom briefly at the SLIFF Closing Night Party. This review is intentionally biased to provide an affirmative, constructive evaluation of the film.]
Director Jon Lindstrom’s ambitious debut feature, How We Got Away With It, functions as a mystery on many levels. As it says right there in the title, the film concerns the process by which a group of unlikely individuals successfully commit and cover up a brutal crime. Yet the film is as concerned with the What and Why as it is with the How. For a hefty portion of the How's running time, the exact misdeed that is perpetrated remains murky, until it is abruptly revealed in a vicious, startling flashback. Most crucially, the motive for the crime is only explained in the final scenes, creating a nagging itch that scurries beneath the surface of the film, always just out of reach.
This somewhat elliptical approach to what is otherwise a straightforward tale of bloodshed and lies is both How’s most distinctive narrative feature and its most confounding flaw. The screenplay, co-written by Lindstrom and actors McCaleb Burnett and Jeff Barry, begins with a solid, even intriguing premise. A circle of thirtysomething friends are gathering for their annual hang-out at the sprawling seaside home of Henry (Burnett), an affable restaurateur. Before the festivities kick off, however, Henry arrives home to find a dead woman swinging from a rope in his dining room.
The questions begin accumulating immediately: Who is the deceased? Why did she end her life? Why does Henry not call the police, but instead hastily cut down and conceal the body before his friends arrive? That How feels no particular need to rush answers for these or any other queries is indicative of the film’s approach to story development. It favors a light, quasi-naturalistic touch that can occasionally be frustrating in its obfuscations. As the guests begin to appear, the lay of the land only get more convoluted. It takes some time to sort out who everyone is, what their relationships to one another are, and whether any particular individual is involved in Henry’s plans. As it turns out, the host has a dark scheme in mind for the weekend, a plot whose urgency only seems to have been heightened by the suicide cover-up.
Henry is mellow and gregarious with his friends, but privately wary and cold-blooded. In short order, he reveals his designs to his vaguely loutish but devoted friend Will (Barry) and unintentionally pulls in the group’s token burnout, Ronnie (Jacob Knoll). Both men reluctantly agree to assist Henry with his plan, which entails a sinister fate for a man named Walter (Richard Bekins). An older, middle-aged drunk employed at Henry’s restaurant, Walter is plainly loathed by the man and his friends, but as with many elements of How’s story, the reasons are initially obscured.
Meanwhile, numerous other story threads are woven into the film’s fabric, not all of them especially enriching: relationship troubles between Will and his girlfriend Leigh (Mikal Evans); Elizabeth’s (Brianne Moncrief) awkwardness as the outsider in the group; and Dallas’ (Luke Robertson) mounting agitation at the absence of Henry’s sister, Sarah (Samantha Soule). Eventually, a dogged police detective (Lindstrom) begins skulking about and engaging in some highly questionable search and seizure practices.
How's screenplay desperately could have used further revisions, at it is swollen with needless character details, repetitive scenes, and go-nowhere subplots. The script doesn’t feel so much unpolished as half-finished and undisciplined. The cast could have been pruned of one or two characters with no discernible effect on the story, beyond tightening it up considerably. Certainly, Henry’s girlfriend Anne (Cassandra Freeman) serves no particular purpose in the narrative, and Leigh mostly drops out of sight after a quarrel with Will. At times, distracting implausibilities bring the film screeching to a halt—as in the aforementioned dodgy policework—which is unfortunate given that How’s dominant sensibility is that of a tightening vice. The film’s performances are serviceable but mostly unremarkable. Burnett must carry most of the scenes, and he rises to the occasion capably. While his Everyman good looks and laid-back demeanor initially seem a poor fit for a criminal schemer, Burnett shapes Henry into a credible character: perceptive, quick-witted, smooth at deception, and wracked with secret anguish.
Despite the script’s serious issues, there is something unsettling about How. It’s in the strange menace that Lindstrom evokes from the alluring summer beaches of the film’s Rochester, New York setting and from Henry’s breezy, slightly gaudy home. It’s in the way that the film’s indefinite sympathies and narrative obliqueness recall Hitchcock and Haneke, respectively, without making a self-important point about doing so. It’s the sudden manner in which the film’s deliberateness and understatement give way to sickening brutality in the third act, such that it seems like a chilling plunge into gangster or horror cinema. At the SLIFF screening, Lindstrom cited The Virgin Spring as an influence, but it is Wes Craven’s post-Manson family remix of that film, The Last House on the Left, that seems more closely entwined with How's darkling aspect. Such points of engagement render How We Got Away With It a far more intriguing work than its distressingly rough-edged story would otherwise suggest.