Two Step (2015)

16 May

twostep2

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

(Originally reviewed in May 2014 for the Little Rock Film Festival)

“Two Step” is an unconventional thriller that I must give my highest compliment about out of the way quickly: I couldn’t predict from one point to the next what was going to happen. The way events occur in this dark, violent, gruesome film, I would have expected anything to happen. As a result, the film kept me on edge from the disturbing start to the violent settings to the bitter end. This is one hell of a film.

It’s hard to pick where exactly to begin with this film, so let’s just start with the story. The first half of the film introduces us to its two main characters separately—college dropout James (Skyy Moore) and career criminal Webb (James Landry Hebert). James comes to a small Texas town to visit his grandmother, only to be there as she passes away. He’s left with everything she has, including the house and his late parents’ money. He moves into the house and gets to know part of the town, as well as strike up a friendship with kindly middle-aged neighbor Dot (Beth Broderick), who is also a ballerina and dance instructor. Meanwhile, Webb is released from prison after eight months and goes to see his girlfriend Amy (Ashley Rae Spillers). But she isn’t particularly pleased to see him, since he broke her nose before he was locked up. She leaves with his money (in an account they both share), and Webb’s trouble begins again once Duane (Jason Douglas), the local crime boss, pays him a visit and expects him to pay a heavy debt in two weeks. Otherwise, he’ll have to leave town.

For a long while, it seems like two separate stories being told (Webb turning back to crime and James being shown the local bar scene). We’re wondering when they’ll intersect and how. Almost halfway through is when things start to get intriguing, as James uncovers one of Webb’s cons to fool elderly people into putting money into Webb’s account. James learns that Webb has tried to con his grandmother and decides to bust him somehow. But the situation turns ugly very quickly…

Period. That’s all I’m going to say about the plot. I knew close to nothing about this movie when I first watched it, and trust me—not knowing what’s going to happen makes it more special. Let’s just say that…Oh wait, I’m sorry, I’m rewriting my review of the Coen Brothers’ shocking thriller “Blood Simple.” Back to “Two Step”… Actually, no. That’s it with the story for now. Like I said earlier, I couldn’t predict what was going to happen in the latter half of the film, and I would like each of its audience members to feel the same way I felt when they see it.

The first half of “Two Step” does a great job in developing its characters with the right amount of time and situations for them to develop themselves into fully-realized characters. When the blood hits the fan eventually, it matters particularly if you care about who is in jeopardy, what is at stake, and what these people have to face. You get a good feel for these characters before things start to get grisly—James is an outsider trying to find his place in a new town; Webb is a live wire with a taste for violence and torture, and Duane constantly threatening him isn’t making things any easier; and Dot is a kind woman who also possesses a lively spirit and an acid tongue.

You know a little bit about Webb’s past and even see him do a horrific deed (such as break a man’s arm as he reaches for his money at an ATM), and so it leaves a good amount of suspense as we wait to see what will happen when he eventually meets up with either James or Dot. When he does, that’s when writer-director Alex R. Johnson, making his feature debut, delivers the punches (no pun intended). By taking the time to get to this point, the abrupt shocks of violence seem all the more surprising. There’s one particular random act of violence that did something for me that hasn’t happened for me in a thriller in a long time: it made me jump out of my seat and shout a hard exclamation at the same time.

All of the actors perform excellent work. Hebert and Moore effectively portray opposing ends of a grim situation. Hebert, in particular, has the juiciest role as the violent criminal who can be vulnerable at times when he doesn’t quite know how to handle a situation he put himself into. With the right balance of charisma and horridness, Hebert is great in this role. Beth Broderick, while playing her character as kindly and tender, is mostly on hand for much-needed comic relief and makes a very good impression here. Jason Douglas adds a dose of one-liners into the mix with his villainous character and creates an effective comic bad-guy.

Also, “Two Step” is a very good-looking film with great cinematography. Even a few things as standard as a dead body, a person tied to a chair, and a dull knife are attention-grabbing in the framework of the story and situations. It also delivers a great dose of Texas atmosphere. You feel like you are there in this environment as you’re watching it.

The story structure is fantastic, as you learn more and more as the film continues. Johnson manages to make scenes more meaningful by revisiting certain undercurrents introduced before (such as the interaction between Webb and Duane) and creating effective payoffs.

The characters’ relationships are convincing, and so we buy why certain events happen when it comes to where they fit into them. It makes the horrific and very intense second half all the more credible as well as shocking, chilling, and well-executed. I apologize for not saying more about the thriller aspect of this film, but I will say this: This film is not for the squeamish; there are only a few brutal acts of violence, and so Johnson makes the most of his limitations.

“Two Step” is such a good film. How effective a thriller was it? I’ll be honest; after I’ve seen it and left the theater, I had to walk several blocks in North Little Rock to get to my car, and I was afraid someone was going to come along and strike me. The film premiered at SXSW and recently screened at the Little Rock Film Festival. If and when it gets a theatrical release, check it out and see if it has that same effect on you afterwards.

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