Though he’s widely considered the father of contemporary independent filmmaking, John Cassavetes isn’t a particularly good role model for young independent filmmakers looking to make a name for themselves. Legions of failed Faces imitations suggest that what you might call his “aesthetic model” can’t be mimicked with much success, and yet the newbies continue to try: They grab a camera and ask a skeleton cast and crew to mostly improvise, intending to capture some kind of raw human drama, but getting only the grating quality right. You can see the appeal for aspiring directors on a microbudget; “raw” usually means “cheap,” and any incidental blemishes are part of a look and feel that can be sold as totally deliberate. Like a noise-rock band playing up their lo-fi sound, a Cassavetes-inspired director can pass their amateur production values off as cinéma vérité by design, conveniently sidestepping the conventional pitfalls of the practice. With so many difficulties downplayed, it’s really no wonder that so many first-time filmmakers choose to adopt the strategy for themselves. But it rarely pays off.
The Cassavetes approach is necessarily pretty ascetic, and part of the problem with its practical application is that it puts an enormous amount of pressure on a film’s central cast to make up for the lack of dazzle elsewhere. In the case of the well-intentioned but wafer-thin Redlegs, a sub-Husbands dramatic comedy from Hammer to Nail critic Brandon Harris, that pressure is pretty obviously too much for the film’s lead threesome to handle, though they fight the losing battle commendably. Andrew Katz, Evan Louison, and Nathon Ramos, struggling to sell themselves as Cincinnati’s most obnoxious tough-guy trio, are reunited for the funeral of a mutual friend, and they proceed over the course of a weekend to get high, play baseball, and grieve loudly. They more or less do nothing, in other words, with the drama confined to their ceaseless macho bickering, the streams of meandering small talk punctuated by howled threats and accusations. Deliberately or not, these men prove unbearable. Many of the most memorable Cassavetes characters, of course, were themselves traditionally “unlikable,” but even the most intolerable were performed by actors of incomparable warmth and charisma, which made all the difference. Katz, Louison, and Ramos, though perfectly competent by amateur standards, are clearly out of their respective depths here, and their anguish only manages to irritate.
Redlegs, as you might expect, has a decidedly improvisatory feel, but it becomes apparent rather quickly that the cast’s improv skills are lacking. They may have been intended as icons of misplaced male aggression, but having characters swear more often than Armando Iannucci creations teaches us precisely nothing about them as either fully realized individuals or symbols of some deeper social ill. Harris, I suspect, doesn’t have a very clear idea about what his film means to express beyond a vague sense of guilt and dread, and the actors, left to their own devices, simply rely on the word “fuck” to pass the time. Redlegs just coasts on its vérité style, offering meandering snatches of three men arguing, fighting, smoking, and swearing (often).