South of Heaven

“I’ll make a deal with you. You show me you’re serious, and I’ll show you I’m reasonable.”

Starring: Aaron Nee, Adam Nee, Jon Gries, Thomas Jay Ryan, Shea Whigham
Rating: 10/10
Directed By: J.L. Vara
Runtime: 97 minutes

South of Heaven is one of the best made films I’ve seen all year. That’s a bold statement, but I’m prepared to defend it . . . and if you don’t know me well yet, you’ll soon learn that while I may occasionally dabble in hyperbole, I’m (almost) always right. In this case, no contest, hands down, if I’m lieing Lemmy can take a swing at my head with his axe . . . South of Heaven kicks ass.

There are so many great things about this movie I don’t even know where to start. How about the story? Well, I don’t want to tell you too much about the story, because I fucking hate reviews that give away the entire plot. If I can avoid knowing too much about the story it always makes the first viewing that much more special. It’s a great story though. What can I tell you without giving too much away . . . A young man completes his tour of duty in the Navy and arrives at his brother’s apartment, where he plans to write the “Great American Novel”. Then things happen. Lots of things. Dark things. Funny things. Twisted things. Violent things. It seems his brother has been hanging with a bad crowd, said crowd pissed off a very bad man, bad man sends some hoods, enter femme fatale . . . and we haven’t even started yet. By the end, our naive young Navy boy has transformed into a hardened anti-hero. The story actually defies any genre categorization. Yes, there’s noir, yes there’s comedy, and oh yes, there is violence. It’s several different genres mixed together in a tasteful melange that you have to savor . . . I can’t tell you what South of Heaven is, you have to experience it for yourself.

And the look! Once again, it’s a magnificent blend of influences, although a bit easier to pin down . . . think vintage comics strips, like Dick Tracy and The Phantom. Bright colors, strong lines, even the outfits have the slightest hint of a dark outline to them. The “outdoor” sets are beautifully backdropped with airbrushed vistas of sky and mountains. And when you see what happens to our boy, let’s just say it would be easy to believe he stepped out of a comic book himself.

Any weaknesses the script or story might have are completely obscured by the performances of the actors. One in particular really stands out though . . . Shea Whigham, as Mad Dog Mantee. Mad Dog is the previously mentioned “bad crowd” . . . a one man crowd! Mad Dog is a bit of a loose cannon, more than a little bit crazy, just a bit evil, and yet . . . he has his very own, albeit twisted, system of honor. “You show me you’re serious, and I’ll show you I’m reasonable.” You see, when his “partner” wants Mad Dog to lay off a victim, Mad Dog agrees to do just that, if his partner will let Mad Dog shoot him in the knee. And it was only on a second viewing that I realized Mad Dog was dressed more than a little bit like Lil Abner. Shea is such a force of nature in this role that it was a bit intimidating meeting him later . . . until I realized he’s actually a really nice guy and even a better actor than I thought. Almost as strong are Jon Gries and Thomas Jay Ryan as two ex-vaudevillians, now jaded villians, who specialize in equal parts sadistic violence and philosophy, all while wearing their old vaudeville costumes (complete with straw boaters). Oh, and did I mention there’s a cameo by George ‘The Animal’ Steele?

The movie has rough edges, and I’m sure some critic somewhere can find more than a few things to nit-pick about. But when push comes to shove, every little thing about it works. I enjoyed every single minute of the film, every scene, every frame, and it passes the biggest test of all . . . I enjoyed it just as much the second time. Maybe even more the second time.

South of Heaven is still looking for distribution, and it damn well deserves it. Until it does, keep your eyes open . . . it’s playing next at Toronto After Dark film festival (screening October 22).

Here’s the official trailer for you:

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