While shooting Stray Bullets, Jack Fessenden—the film’s writer, director, composer, and co-star—was 16 years old. Filmmaking at any age or level of confidence is remarkable, but Fessenden’s accomplishment is particularly impressive, as he sidesteps many of the clichés and uncertainties that mark the efforts of neophytes, especially when working in the crime genre. Crime films have a tendency to encourage young filmmakers to insecurely posture themselves as too cool for school—to take refuge in references to other films while staging violence callously for cheap and shrill shock effects. Fessenden astutely recognizes his limitation of experience and tailors a film specifically to reflect and accommodate it, often incorporating ellipses that reflect the unformed point of view of young protagonists.
The film follows a classic crime-movie structure, setting up a few disparate narratives that will unite, of course, in a violent climax. In the primary thread, we follow Ash (Asa Spurlock) and Connor (Fessenden) as they screw around one morning, stealing a paintball gun, wandering the woods, flirting with girls, and putting off the work that Ash’s father, JT (Robert Burke Warren), has assigned them, which involves cleaning out a dilapidated trailer. In the secondary story, a gang executes a robbery that goes awry. Cody (James Le Gros), Dutch (John Speredakos), and Charlie (Larry Fessenden) steal a suitcase from a gangster, and head off into the woods, as Charlie gradually dies in the backseat of their getaway car from a gunshot to the gut, in a series of sequences that somehow never quite quote Reservoir Dogs.
It doesn’t take an astute viewer to figure out where Cody, Dutch, and Charlie are heading. What distinguishes Stray Bullets from so many other low-budget crime films is Fessenden’s sense of quietness. The filmmaker lingers on images, informing them with inchoate dread as well as a talismanic sense of wrongness. When JT runs into another father in a country store, they exchange pleasantries with curt, pleading facial expressions that fill in a wealth of implicated backstory within a matter of seconds. Ash and Connor’s frequent fondling of the paintball gun in the early scenes is contrasted heavy-handedly yet effectively against the adult gunplay of the other story, clearly foreshadowing later events. As a filmmaker, Jack owes a significant debt to the beautifully, evocatively scruffy films of his father, Larry, who also serves as cinematographer here, bathing Stray Bullets in autumnal light that connotes loss of innocence, as Ash and Connor amble toward a trap.
Fessenden displays a sense of pared-down authority that would be impressive for older, more experienced artists. The robbery that sets the second narrative in motion is framed through an alleyway that runs toward us almost three-dimensionally. We hear gunshots in the background, near the back of the alley, and the crooks gradually rush toward us to the front of the street. There’s a brief, strikingly horizontal gun battle, and the robbers are off in their car—a potentially intricate set piece reduced to a few evocative gestures.
The dialogue is similarly efficient, most notably the conversations between the bad guys, who don’t speak Tarantinoese but talk simply of the action behind and ahead of them with escalating desperation and panic. Cody has particularly memorable agency, with a clipped vocal delivery and pregnant physicality that simultaneously communicate suspicion and strange compassion. At one point, a criminal tells a compatriot not to fire his gun because the other guy’s just going to shoot back anyway. This display of common sense is remarkable in a macho genre that often prizes aggression as sensory stimulation above all, and it indicates a refreshing respect for human life that resounds throughout the film. (When innocent bystanders are killed in the haunting climax, their deaths are allowed to matter as violations against an ideal order.) Stray Bullets reduces a stock scenario to its primal essence, informing genre blood sport with pulp transcendentalism.