Judge Adam Arseneau knows what time it is.
A dark comedy with killer timing.
A film so quirky and absurd, yet so stylish and suspenseful, 11:14 begs the obvious question to be asked: why has such an entertaining film gone unnoticed for so long? Released onto DVD two years after its creation with hardly any theatrical screenings under its belt, it is the kind of slick title that executives drool over at film festivals, labeled with independent buzz words, and destined to become underground hits like Donnie Darko. Heck, 11:14 even has Patrick Swayze in it, too.
Ever heard of it? Yeah, me neither. So what the heck happened?
Facts of the Case
The place: a small town named Middleton. The time: approaching 11:14 PM. The situation: chaos. That about sums things up.
11:14 tells the overlapping tale of a car crash, expanding like a singularity and enveloping the lives of its onlookers, who at first glance appear to be nothing but innocent bystanders of fate, but turn out to have odd connections to one another. Driving home after a night of drinking, a young man is shocked to find a body smashing into his car, one that seems to have fallen from the sky. Panicked, he tries to hide the evidence of his alcohol abuse, but soon finds himself on the run from the police. At the same time, three teenagers are off for a night of juvenile pranks and mayhem, tearing across town in a minivan, before getting involved in a car crash of their own. Meanwhile, a desperate teen tries to convince his co-worker to stage a robbery at the convenience store they work in, in order to secure money for an abortion for his teen harlot of a girlfriend. At that exact moment, the girlfriend's parents are anxiously searching the streets, trying to find their absent daughter.
By the time the clock hits 11:14 PM, all their lives will converge in one way or another…some more pleasantly than others.
11:14 is exactly the kind of cruel and ironic film I can get behind; a film deeply committed to doing bad by its characters not out of malicious intent, but simply because life gets really screwed up sometimes. A kaleidoscopic jigsaw of flashbacks, cuts, montages, and repetition, the film traces through the events leading up to the fateful 11:14 PM, through various angles, observed by the people who congregate inadvertently upon the chaos. No linear storytelling here; the film jumps in every direction possible, weaving its tale back and forth, often repeating sequences from the perspective of different characters. Though 11:14 isn't exactly hard to follow, it gives almost no introduction to its characters before thrusting them directly into the fire, so often the actions of a particular sequence often make absolutely no sense until the end of the film, where a crucial piece of the film falls into place. It is a clever piece of screenwriting from first-time writer/director Greg Marcks, directed skillfully with a forceful style that is rarely found in young directors. The film is confident with its material, never hesitating, and manages to avoid that "throw every trick in the book" fresh-out-of-film-school style often seen by first-time directors.
There is nothing better than seeing a cleverly constructed and well-made film (albeit a pointless one) play itself out. 11:14 combines the self-fulfilling ironic prophecy humor of Arrested Development with the dramatic interconnecting plot arcs of Magnolia, written and directed by a fresh-out-of film school teen who grew up watching way too many Coen Brothers movies. You get the impression that Marcks desperately wanted to make a Blood Simple rip-off, but was having way too much fun making his first feature film to stay serious. As a result, 11:14 has this odd disposition balanced between grisly dramatic tension and outright hilarious slapstick, which is an impressive trick only the most skillful of black comedies can pull off. This kid has one heck of a career ahead of him.
And for a first-time film, 11:14 managed to secure itself an impressive cast of recognizable faces…though some of the performances are on the rough side. Hillary Swank (also executive producer) plays a pimply-faced teenage convenience store clerk who lets her financially troubled friend rob the store. Her performance isn't exactly Oscar-caliber, but she masters the sulky disposition of a teenager well enough. Rachael Leigh Cook plays exactly the opposite role she played in Josie and the Pussycats, a scheming teen harlot named Cheri whose actions are central to the catastrophe befalling the townsfolk of Middleton. She could be the worst actor in the entire world, and I wouldn't even notice, because she is so easy on the eyes, it should be illegal. And this is exactly what her role in 11:14 is supposed to be. Patrick Swayze is surprisingly hilarious as the father of Cheri, off wandering the streets looking for his absent daughter, and has some of the best slapstick moments in the whole film. Barbara Hershey and Colin Hanks round out the recognizable cast, both with excellent performances. While the cast is certainly top-notch, the dialogue does get a bit thin at times. The plot is carefully constructed and full of minor details and nitpicking authenticity, making sure to place each character exactly where they are supposed to be in relation to the unfolding chaos, often at the expense of meaningful dialogue or purpose.
A palate of nasty fluorescent street light, pale greens, browns, and blacks, 11:14 has a distinctive overexposed visual style, quite striking and stylish. Shot entirely at night, the film does a reasonable job controlling its black levels and grain, but as with all low-light photography, certain sequences fare better than others. The transfer, presented in an anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1, looks very good, with no noticeable damage or defects. For a low-budget independent film, 11:14 has a fantastic presentation.
The sound is even better, with three separate audio tracks: a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track, a Dolby 5.1 Surround track, and a 5.1 DTS presentation. The 2.0 track is pretty weak in terms of definition and volume, but both the 5.1 Dolby Digital and the DTS track have solid dispersal, ambient rumbling bass, and clear dialogue. I like the DTS track; it has a noticeably more vibrant presentation in terms of detail and small ambient noises, and on high volumes sounds quite impressive. Even better is the score, a strange theremin-driven country guitar and trash-can score straight out of Mystery Science Theater 3000, haunting the background during dramatic sequences and erupting into what can only be described as jazz bongo-influenced chase sequences. Again, for such a small-budgeted independent film, the technical presentation for this DVD is nothing short of amazing. New Line did a fantastic job on this one.
The main special feature, a commentary track, always an excellent inclusion, features director Greg Marcks chatting idly about his project…mostly production details and location shot chatter. A bit light on depth, Marcks has a laconic, thoughtful delivery, but I always like to hear a director talk about their projects, even if they don't say much of anything. As for the rest of the DVD, one particularly unique feature is the "Character Jump," an on-screen selection that allows the viewer to "jump" to a different scene in order to follow a character's transitions through the simultaneous storylines. In effect, it allows the viewer to reassemble the film, in a sense, in order to observe the actions of a selected character chronologically, rather than through the fragmented presentation of the film. A cute idea.
In addition, there are two storyboard-to-screen sequences, five minutes of deleted/extended scenes, some DVD-ROM crap, the obligatory theatrical trailers and previews, and a 10-minute featurette entitled "46 Minutes to Midnight: The Making of 11:14." This one is pretty standard stuff, featuring cast and crew interviews discussing the challenges and fun had making the film, complete with the boring ambiguous statements from slightly disinterested actors and cast that we all know and love about mass-produced "making-of" featurettes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
New Line has chosen to market the film more as a dramatic thriller than a black comedy, at least based on the DVD packaging, which happily compares the film to Crash and Memento, two films that have absolutely nothing in common with 11:14, the latter especially. Okay, sure, Crash has a series of interconnected characters crossing over in suspenseful fashion, but Crash is a film with a purpose. It has a meaning greater than simply being clever for the sake of cleverness.
Beyond a carefully constructed series of sight gags, absurd coincidences, dead bodies, severed penises, and stylish segues, 11:14 is totally and utterly pointless. Style aplenty the film has, and it definitely dances all the right steps that buzz-worthy independent films are expected to dance, but for what purpose? Beyond cleverness for the sake of being clever, the film ultimately fails to be significant or meaningful in any way. It is an entertaining film, no doubt, but one devoid of purpose.
Okay, so it may be pointless, but who cares? 11:14 is hilariously bizarre, the most esoteric of dark comedies sure to delight those of us with damaged senses of humor. Far too quirky and pointless to be taken seriously as a drama, but too surreal to be anything but the blackest of comedies, this is a film that has no readily identifiable market to fall into, save the small genre the Coen Brothers have carved out for themselves over the years. This, I think, contributed to the lack of distribution for 11:14…perhaps nobody had any idea what to do with such a film.
Though not without its share of flaws, what saves 11:14 from mediocrity is its clever tongue-in-cheek attitude, never once making the mistake of taking itself too seriously. This off-kilter sense of self-parody not only makes 11:14 immensely enjoyable to watch, free from pretension, but also helps smooth over the rough bits of lackluster acting and moderate dialogue that creep up now and again.
It may have been a pointless jigsaw puzzle, but boy, it sure was fun to put together. Why 11:14 has made virtually no impact in the independent world up until now, I have no idea; but with any luck, this excellent film will find its audience on DVD.
Not guilty on all charges.
Also, when trying to transport a corpse in your car, be sure not to lock the keys in the trunk along with the body. This is a lesson that applies to all aspects of daily life.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Director's Commentary track with director Greg Marcks
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