Saving Grace (2010)

 Reviewed by Pierre-Wolf

Starring Jason Barbeck, Mandy Bo, Peter Coady

Directed by Chris Pickle

Many genre (and not so genre) filmmakers have tried to emulate the work of George A. Romero, with mixed results. Saving Grace isn’t a zombie film, and writer-director Chris Pickle is no George Romero. But if Pickle’s second feature proves anything, it’s that he understands what separates Romero from his many imitators is his focus on the inner-workings of a microcosm in the face of a plague, rather than the plague itself. Whether he succeeds or not in capturing the same sorts of tensions that run rampant in Romero’s films is another matter.

Clayton (Jason Barbeck) is a slightly off-kilter janitor at the local hospital, who has an eye for Grace (Mandy Bo), the pretty nurse who ordinarily wouldn’t give him the time of day. A single mother/drug addict, Grace has just lost custody of her baby and is now a patient at the hospital herself, following a heroin overdose. She wakes one morning in the confines of an abandoned building, far from the city, where Clayton informs her that a series of dirty bombs have rendered the air outside un-breathable. Is he Grace’s saviour or her captor? Clayton’s friend Hank (Peter Coady) soon joins them, and while Clayton’s motives are kept secret, it’s clear that Hank’s intentions towards Grace are nothing if not dishonourable.

Credit goes to Pickle and co-writer Filip Premrl for choosing to frame their thriller around a post-September 11th context of terrorist-attack paranoia, when many of today’s filmmakers often tend to resort to the more overt and physical terrors of the Romero films (i.e., zombies) that have been the threat du jour ever since the Dawn of the Dead remake.

Fantasia 2010Ultimately, the trio of characters that Pickle has chosen to essentially represent “us” isn’t interesting enough to carry the film. Clayton’s narration, which opens the film and makes several repeat appearances, is somewhat trite and serves no purpose other than to explain what we already know about his character: that he’s a loner. The movie flounders in its second act with the arrival of Hank and his portrayal as a clichéd redneck and Grace’s unfortunate, and not very dramatic, relapse into drug use. There follows a series of repetitive dialogue sequences and drug trips, when what Grace should be concerned with (and certainly what we the audience is concerned with) is knowing the truth: “Is Clayton lying to me, or isn’t he?” and “Is my baby still alive, or is he dead along with everyone else?” When Grace finally escapes her captor during an admittedly exciting third act chase, I found myself asking: “What was she waiting for?” My best guess is that she was waiting for the movie to be feature length.

Saving Grace can’t be dismissed for its budgetary shortcomings. The film boasts an interesting premise that seems perfectly suited to a low budget horror movie. The atmospheric cinematography and claustrophobic locations effectively evoke the darker side of small town America (or Southern Ontario, where it was shot), and the two lead actors are certainly enthusiastic and up for the challenge. The fact that it ultimately fails to pay off is unfortunate, given the talent involved, and is symptomatic of a larger issue I’ve noticed with indie filmmakers eager to make that first (or, in this case, second) leap into feature-length filmmaking: a blind willingness to stretch an intriguing concept (and limited resources) to feature length when what they really have is a good, solid short film.

2 out of 5

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