Judge Gordon Sullivan occasionally overdoses on indie cinema.
"One of the most exciting indie films in years."
There's a reason Hollywood is often called the Dream Factory. Most people focus on the first part of the term: the fact that Hollywood sells us stories and fantasies, things that aren't quite real. However, that second half is just as important. Like any modern factory, Hollywood has perfected both its product and its process. There are three or four types of movies—the (historical) drama, the tent-pole actioner, the romcom—that Hollywood does really well. That's wonderful, but it also means that movie fans who want a film that's a little slower or a little more intense have to look elsewhere. Luckily, film fans now have DVD, where smaller features can have a chance to shine. Enter Putty Hill: Two Disc Collector's Edition, a DVD set that offers the adventurous movie-watcher the opportunity to see the birth of a fully formed cinematic voice. It's not the typical Hollywood film, but Putty Hill offers a subject and vibe that will appeal to those outside the cinematic mainstream.
The setting is one of the more rundown sections of Baltimore, and the plot revolves around a family who has just lost one of its members to a drug overdose. We meet the deceased boy's brother, his uncle, a cousin, and various family and friends as the impact of his death reverberates through the small community.
Despite not being a "famous" city on par with Los Angeles or New York City, Baltimore has had its share of media glory. Whether from the quirky love of John Waters' films or the hard-hitting portraits of The Wire Baltimore has been given its share of attention. In fact, Putty Hill exists in the crossroads between John Waters and The Wire. On the one hand the film shows the Baltimore landscape with a certain affection, not unlike Waters films. On the other, Putty Hill isn't afraid to show the ravages of drugs and drug culture on the city. It should be stressed that for all its focus on the darker side of Baltimore, Putty Hill isn't a hard-hitting expose or after-school special.
What makes Putty Hill special is that director Matthew Porterfield doesn't want us to leave the film with a message; he's all about the journey, not the destination. Putty Hill unfolds at a leisurely pace that feels equally informed by recent foreign cinema (think Pedro Costa), independent American features (like the work of Kelly Reichardt), and strains of documentary. This combination gives the subject matter (the ravages of drugs) a freshness that's both surprising and effective.
It's amazing that Putty Hill is only Porterfield's second feature, but it's even more amazing that it's getting such a solid release. The film was shot on digital video, and the transfer on this DVD looks about as good as can be expected from low-budget video. Black levels and color saturation are strong, while detail isn't quite as good as I would have expected. It's totally watchable, especially for the budget, but this isn't a reference-quality transfer. The stereo sound mix is even better. Dialogue is clean and clear, and the mix is perfectly balanced with ambient and other textures.
Extras start with an audio commentary featuring Porterfield, his DP Jeremy Saulnier, editor Marc Vives, and producer Steve Holmgren. The quartet offer a master class in the difficulties of shooting an independent feature, and their commitment to the project is compelling. There is little silence and loads of information in this track. For those who want more visual insight, there's a 30-minute documentary that tries to emulate the film, giving us an impression of what it was like to make the film. There are also nine deleted scenes, and a screen test for a project that morphed into Putty Hill. Finally, the film's theatrical trailer is included.
That would be enough to put Putty Hill head and shoulders above most independent DVD releases, but then there's a whole 'nother disc. This one contains the 65-minute feature that Porterfield directed before Putty Hill called Hamilton. Like his longer feature, Hamilton looks at the social world of lower-class Baltimore. This time the focus is on a pair of young accidental parents, and it was shot on film. The film doesn't look perfect, but it's an impressive debut nonetheless. This second film gets its own set of deleted scenes, as well as an interview between Porterfield and New York critic Richard Brody and the film's trailer. Brody also contributes and essay to the set's booklet, along with Andrew O'Hahr.
Putty Hill is obviously not for everyone. It doesn't have much narrative drive, and doesn't examine characters most viewers can relate to. It also doesn't really pass much judgment on those characters. Viewers looking for conventional structures, characters, or emotional responses will spend the 85 minutes of Putty Hill frustrated.
Putty Hill demonstrates the arrival of a new voice in American independent feature filmmaking. Though Putty Hill won't be for everyone, fans of slower, more intense cinema would do well to pick this set up. The film alone is worth at least a rental, but the inclusion of a decent slate of extras and an entire extra feature (with its own supplements) push this into the territory of serious value.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Cinema Guild
• Bonus Film
Review content copyright © 2011 Gordon Sullivan; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.