Judge Bryan Byun once planned a Day of Vengeance, but slept late and had to settle for an Afternoon of Resentment.
"Y'know Jake…folks around here don't take kindly to strangers pokin' their nose where it don't belong."
For the most part, there are two kinds of bad movies: bad movies that are knowingly bad, and bad movies made by people who think they're making a good movie. But there's also the kind of bad movie made by people who tried to make a good movie, failed, know they failed, but hope you'll like the movie anyway.
Day of Vengeance is one of those bad movies. By any conventional measure of filmmaking, it's a failure. And yet, it's a film you want to like, because it's made with plenty of heart and conviction from what's obviously a group of talented young filmmakers with more vision than budget.
Directed by first-timer Isaac Pingree, Day of Vengeance (retitled from Blood Loss, perhaps because the latter sounds like some kind of medical horror flick) is a charming, gently hilarious comedy about a goofy but likable young man, Jake, who wanders into a small, rural Northern California town populated by a quirky bunch of banjo-pickin' hayseeds. He "meets cute" with Laura, a pretty, spirited young woman who packs a .357 Magnum and a serious attitude. Their first few encounters don't go so well—she punches his lights out—but he eventually wins her over with his endearing aw-shucks innocence and boyish good looks.
The problem is, though, Day of Vengeance isn't actually supposed to be a quirky indie rom-com. It's supposed to be a tense, gritty neo-noir thriller. And therein lies the rub.
The movie Pingree actually wanted to make is about a mysterious young man, Jake, who shows up in a small town—a town, like all cinematic small towns, full of dark secrets—investigating a botched robbery attempt 15 years earlier that resulted in gunfire and the deaths of several men. It turns out one of those dead men is Jake's father. While in town, Jake meets up with Laura, whose own father was—yep, you guessed it—also killed in that robbery. By Jake's father, no less!
Add to that a pile of missing loot, a Very Bad Man who turns up from out of nowhere to complicate Jake and Laura's lives, uneven, sometimes painfully awful acting, bargain-basement production values, and the inexplicable presence of some extremely goofy bluegrass tunes, and you have a would-be John Dahl-esque cowboy crime thriller gone hilariously awry.
If it sounds like I'm making fun of Day of Vengeance, well, I am, a little. But I'm willing to cut Pingree and his film more slack than I'd normally give a film this atrocious, partly because of the low budget (the sound is execrable, but apparently that's because they recorded it on a DAT deck purchased off of eBay that kept malfunctioning during production), but mostly because Pingree demonstrates a compelling visual style that hints at the kind of film he could make if given the proper resources. The way he incorporates flashbacks into the story—blending them into the present-day scenes rather than pausing the story for chunks of tedious backstory—is creative and fun, and the shootouts and other action sequences are rough, but definitely watchable, with generous sprinklings of influences from Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood westerns.
Two elements of Day of Vengeance, though, prove fatal to the film: a cheeseball script by Sebastian Passanisi that's absolutely rife with hokey clichés (see quote above) and unintentionally funny "hardboiled" dialogue; and a cast of actors who belong in a completely different movie.
In fairness, uneven casting comes with the territory when you're making a zero-budget indie film and have to work with the best of the actors you can convince to be in your flick. And it's not that the actors in Pingree's cast are that terrible—although the actress who plays Laura is, admittedly, pretty wooden. It's that most of them, starting with the lead actor, are completely wrong for this film. Tony Kitchin, who plays Jake, is a likable enough actor, but his pleasant, slightly awkward blandness is better suited to an American Pie-type comedy than a serious thriller. Try to imagine Jason Biggs as the star of The Grifters, and you'll see what I'm getting at.
One scene in the film features a deputy and a pair of townsfolk debating how to respond to the death of their sheriff. It should be a fairly serious, somber scene, but the fact that they're played by: 1) a guy who looks like he stepped off the set of Super Troopers; 2) a dead ringer for Dave "Gruber" Allen, the hippie guidance counselor on Freaks and Geeks; and 3) Mongo from Blazing Saddles…well, something about watching these guys try to emote themselves into a dark place makes me think about how awesome these actors would be if they were actually trying to play funny.
As one might expect from a small indie production, the DVD of Day of Vengeance has some serious video and audio issues. The film was shot on Super 16mm, and the transfer is muddy with faded colors and sometimes blurry edges. Audio is just this side of unlistenable. There's no other way to put it. The aforementioned malfunctioning DAT recorder, I suppose, is to blame for some truly awful post-production dubbing and foley effects. Some scenes feature audible wind noise and other distortions on the soundtrack. Basically, no one is going to mistake this film for a polished big-budget Hollywood production.
The special features include an audio commentary by the director, cinematographer, and writer; a "behind the scenes" featurette; photo gallery; and trailer. In some ways, the commentary track is more rewarding than the film itself, as it offers an interesting (and useful to other aspiring filmmakers) glimpse into the ultra-low budget filmmaking process, with a trio of guys who have good chemistry together and, thankfully, are well aware of the technical limitations of their film and good natured about the result.
It's really too bad that Pingree chose such dark subject matter for his first feature. His cast, with a rural Northern California setting that's actually quite intriguing—I haven't seen very many films explore this particular region—could have made for an engaging comic film (perhaps even a parody of a noir crime thriller). Instead, we get a noble effort, but, sadly, not a very good film.
The court finds Day of Vengeance guilty on all charges, but will grant
leniency to this first offender with a suspended sentence.
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