Jittery, loud, and emotive, Sean Kirkpatrick’s Cost of a Soul has “first movie” written all over it, a quality less indicative of its immaturity than the frenzy it works itself into. A hectic thriller set on the mean streets of North Philadelphia, the film has too much of almost everything—characters, influences, ideas, style—a fullness that grants it complexity but also proves exhausting.
All this is typified by a confusing opening scene, which follows the wordless passage of a mysterious suitcase through a variety of hands. It’s a wildly flashy sequence, one that exhibits the surfeit of style and themes the film will attempt to juggle, as well as Kirkpatrick’s obvious passion in presenting them. Working with cinematographer Chase Bowman, he crafts a scene that’s both impressive and reductively tacky, managing to pack in a flashback-driven backstory without loading us down with talky exposition.
Starting off as the tale of two veterans returning to their broken-down community, The Cost of a Soul grows steadily, mistaking the tight whirlpool plots of its noir forebears as an excuse to suck in everything that catches its eye. The end result suggests a crossover between The Departed and The Wire (from which it snags two minor actors), shying from realistic family drama into a bloody war between black and Irish gangsters.
These gangsters do feel reasonably realistic, with grungy hideouts in the back of dive bars and abandoned project apartments, but this verisimilitude fades as the tenor grows increasingly operatic. Character detail is quickly abandoned in favor of violent set pieces, and Kirkpatrick’s fervor for action and reference-making eventually outstrips the story he set out to tell. Most egregiously, he shoehorns in the mystical suitcase from Pulp Fiction, itself an homage to Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, as a clunky and distracting symbol.
It’s always refreshing to see a newcomer with so much energy, but the chaos that takes over Cost of a Soul ultimately feels wasteful. Kirkpatrick’s cast is surprisingly strong for such a small movie. His setting, which involved small-crew forays into some of America’s most dangerous neighborhoods, speaks for itself. But these places and characters don’t have room to turn into anything more than window dressing for what soon devolves into a routine thriller.
Will Blagrove, as the wounded veteran D.D., shows promise, cutting a poignant, charming figure, but his theater background shows through in the over-emoted capsule speeches he’s forced to deliver. The film’s sadistic side is embodied in the superbly cold eyes of Tommy (Chris Kerson), a former enforcer who, after failing to go straight, now kills on autopilot. He atones by collecting his victim’s mass cards, a shorthand affectation that hints at the size of his guilt while never broaching its realities.
Already bloated, Cost of a Soul ends with a sustained burst of action and suspense that’s at first thrilling, then disgusting, and finally just silly, piling on twists so furiously that the film loses any semblance of realism. It’s a fitting conclusion for a movie with too much energy for its own good.