Sunday, September 3, 2017

“Dead on Arrival” - modern noir set in the Bayou to the tune of Bach.

By Moira Sullivan
Billy Flynn as Sam Collins 

“Everyone’s got a transgender story around these parts”.

“Dead on Arrival” (US 2017)  is a neo-noir thriller by Stephen C. Sepher. The opening scene is ripe with irritating events you should never have to experience– listening to bad news on your cell phone voice mail on a deserted Louisiana road, crippling stomach pains, and a “by the book” local sheriff that arrives on the scene who would rather see proof of identity than call an ambulance. Traveling sales executive Sam Collins (Billy Flynn) may have to wait before he makes it to the ER,  however, there are degrees of local law enforcement incompetence as is later shown with wayward cop Deputy Walker, played by Tyson Sullivan.

After this intriguing introduction, director Stephen C. Sepher launches into a “12-hour earlier”  flashback, the scene of a lavish New Year’s Eve party at a private mansion with single white women hired for the event to fraternize with the guests. We learn a couple of details in the flashback. The party bottoms out with a murder, and Sam is mysteriously poisoned.

Earlier that evening Sam meets the party host, Dr. Richard Alexander (Billy Slaughter), 30-ish with dyed white hair who works in the pharmaceuticals industry.  Party waiter Thomas (Travis Farris), later referred to as a “sexual weasel” and Richard have an obvious erotic connection. Bonnie, the party fixer (Scottie Thompson) and Richard note the bottle of champagne Sam brings to the event, certainly welcome at a small dinner party but not one with a local African-American brass band, black jack table and expensive cigars. Despite excessive spending, the interior of Richard’s house has a cheapness to it like the collection of unimpressive vases of various colors and size on a book shelf.  Richard freely dispenses alcohol to his high class low life guests including perv swinger and insurance agent Hans Dunkel (Chris Mulky). Almost everyone in the film seems to be unhappily married with lovers on the side. The 'party girls' work at a place called “The Fun House” as erotic dancers. 

Richard is harshly reprimand by one of his investors Vince (played by director Sepher) because of his slow turnout of cash return, and Sam Collins is signed to change his luck. Vince's home is better decorated apart from the hand sewn pillows with Santa and his reindeer.

Sepher packs noir ingredients with fall guy Sam Collins, and femme fatale Bonnie. New York mobster Zancer dressed in plaid (Soprano regular Lillo Brancato) and Conte (Anthony Sinopoli) sporting a heavy gold chain around his knit sweaters provide comic relief but the power structure that hires them to be "cleaners" keep them in check.  The momentum of the film is relentless and Sepher serves up one atrocity after another, particularly to women who have little agency and ability to influence the narrative. The entire spectacle transpires under the watchful blue eyes of Sam who is like a rag doll in the rough, a lost soul off his grid, far from his wife and children.

Denise Milfort and Christa B Allen

Part of the underbelly of the intricate crime tale is cryptically revealed by Jessy (Christa B Allen) , one of the hired party girls” – referred to as “a stripper with a heart of gold”: “Everyone’s got a transgender story around these parts”.  It is also true that some of the sex workers are bisexual or lesbian. Jessy offers to help Sam by bringing him to a Vodou priestess Agrona (played by Haitian born Denise Milfort, former vocalist for “The Fragile” written and produced in New Orleans in 1999 by Trent Reznor of “Nine Inch Nails”). Both Jessy and Agrona are given limited agency to work through the excesses of the men they serve but like Thomas and others at the "Fun House" their existence is brutal.

“Dead on Arrival” is inspired by the 1950's classic film "D.O.A". starring Edmond O'Brien and stars Edmond’s daughter Maria in a bit part as a suspicious neighbor who lives in Dr. Richard Alexander’s neighborhood. Maria's character has good reason to be on the lookout.  In his weakened physically deteriorating condition, Sam scuffles through the village in a blood stained white shirt looking like the undead.

Cinematographer John Garrett (Man of Steel, Thor, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) captures the decadent night life and beautiful shots of Blood River east of the Mississippi in New Orleans. His color palette includes striking dominant colors for interiors contrasted with boat life and water routes. Creole and multicultural roots – including a lesson on famous Armenians, blend with local mobsters, hangouts, decadent clubs and shady characters – a modern noir set in the Bayou to the tune of Bach.

© 2017 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 09/06/17
Movie Magazine International