‘Second-Story Man’ an overextended but promising debut

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Second-Story Man 

Directed by Neal Dhand

Written by Neal Dhand and Richard Jackson

USA, 2011

imdb, film web-site

(Note: Neal Dhand writes for us at Sound On Sight. He and I do not currently know each other and after this review our meeting at the staff Christmas party may be a bit awkward.)

Edward Delaney recently wrote a provocative piece arguing that many documentary filmmakers are seduced into making their films feature-length, rather than making them the length that the narrative demands. But this problem is not restricted to documentary. As John Landis tells the story, the great director George Roy Hill once drunkenly gave him great advice about editing: “You need to take your film, shake it and everything that falls on the floor, you leave.”

The problem for most filmmakers, especially in their first films, is that they love their film too much to give them a great shake and they become too attached to individual scenes at the expense of the piece as a whole.

Take Second-Story Man, by director Neal Dhand. Dhand’s first feature is a cracker-jack 65 minute thriller with a very strong final reel that plays a bit like a Mike Leigh kitchen-sink drama transposed to the American rust-belt and filtered through a thriller lens. The problem is that the really strong 65-minute film is buried within a sluggish 105 minute feature, like a thin man trapped in a fat suit.

It’s a shame, because they is some quality work on display here. The good 65 minutes feature great acting, fantastic cinematography and an excellent score. While the dialogue is neither quotable nor lyrical, it has the virtue of feeling real – it genuinely suits the characters. The extra 40 minutes have all the same virtues, they are just unnecessary, and like an appendix gone septic, they need to be removed.

The film’s finer qualities start with a title that works on many levels. Second-Story Man could refer to Arthur (Christopher J. Domig), a former cat burglar now with a crippled leg, who starts the film baby-sitting Maria (Zaira Crystal) in the getaway car while his girlfriend, Maria’s mother Monique (Valerie Evering), pulls quick robberies to put food on the family table. The title could also refer to Max (Danny Hoskins) the drunken security guard with his own little family, wife Janet (Lindsay Goranson) and daughter Holly (Lea Mancarella). Since Max’s narrative is introduced second, he is literally “the second story man.”

Once Maria runs into Max at the bank he guards – with disastrous results – and Arthur and Maria move into the apartment below Max, Janet and Holly, the film continues to plays with the idea of which of the two men is the true “second-story man.” This tension is critical to the climax to the film, but the editing undermines the meta-narrative by focusing too much on Arthur at the expense of following Max.

While the film does not follow Max, Arthur does – obsessively. This plot aspect makes up most of the extraneous 40 minutes of the film. The problem isn’t that Arthur becomes an obsessive nutter, it’s that Arthur has no way to communicate his purpose. It is only when Arthur starts using Janet as his baby-sitting service and the two begin to build a relationship that Arthur is given an opportunity to articulate (albeit in code) his reasons and his goals.

The film’s single biggest misstep is a fantasy sequence between Arthur and Janet. It feels like something that blundered in from another movie. As a device to explain Arthur’s inner conflict it might have worked – earlier in the film when that conflict was purely internal and completely opaque to the audience. By the time that Arthur is actually talking to Janet, the scene is both jarring and redundant.

After that misstep, the film finds its footing and the last thirty minutes are a runaway locomotive of disaster and heartbreak. While not perfect, they do salvage the film and reward those patient viewers who stuck it out.

Michael Ryan

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