Two Step is the rare thriller that resounds with an authentic ring of chaos. Director Alex R. Johnson mixes two different unofficial genres: the eccentric redneck character study, in the vein of a Billy Bob Thornton film, with a post-noir bloodbath that self-consciously recalls Blood Simple, only with an even larger dollop of the startling cruelty that one encounters in Jim Thompson’s writing. Johnson plays with these moods so ruthlessly that viewers are never allowed to get their bearings. A somewhat comedic scene between a married man and his sexy, jilted, seen-it-all lover can segue with little preparation into a moment in which a man’s arm is broken as he leans out of his car at an ATM, his assailant slipping by like an indifferent phantom wolf. Meanwhile, an innocent is elaborately established as the film’s hero only to be brutally beaten and effectively incapacitated for most of the narrative, and even characters who’re shown to be great founts of power are destroyed and discarded with arbitrary abandon. An existentialist point not dissimilar to the theme of No Country for Old Men, both the book and the film, can be discerned from these developments: that no one’s minding the store upstairs, which is to say that morality is a delusion that can only be afforded, at best, by the comfortable.
But that sort of high-flown interpretation weirdly diminishes Two Step, a zig-zagging, free-associational genre item that’s mostly concerned with stretching the generally narrow tonal rules of what a thriller can be. The film’s often down-home funny, trading in flakey Lynchian Americanisms like “Coors Light is the only Coors I care about,” and, at other times, almost unbearably violent. The violence here isn’t of the chic, cool-video-store-clerk variety either. Johnson shows little actual carnage while intensifying the sound effects of the victims’ suffering, which the actors perform with an exactitude that’s unusual for this sort of double-crossing puzzle-box crime film. Characters don’t nobly weather the pain inflicted on them; instead, they spasm and weep, establishing the demoralizing disruption of a murder spree that blows through a small Texas town.
Johnson’s film is ultimately about the slippery contexts of power. When Webb (James Landry Hébert), a tall, handsomely gaunt killer who suggests a corn-fried fusion of David Bowie and Willem Dafoe, gets out of the pen and bullies his girlfriend, he’s all commanding menace. When Webb’s talking to local crime boss Duane (Jason Douglas) about an outstanding debt, however, he’s a stammering ne’er-do-well—a humbling that counter-instinctually allows the former to be much scarier than most, more typically invulnerable movie villains. One can smell this flake’s desperation and self-entitlement like flop sweat.
The question pertains to how the damage that Webb’s destined to wreak will manifest itself, because Johnson insinuatingly intercuts between subplots that initially appear to have little to do with him. The fiftysomething Dot (Beth Broderick) is an attractive woman with three divorces under her belt who takes twentysomething James (Skyy Moore) under her wing when he loses his grandmother, who was his only family after his parents died sometime before. Dot teaches James the two step (which alludes to the film’s subtle, elegant motif of only featuring two characters in any given image at a time), developing a relationship with him that skates ambiguously on the border between May-December bonding and motherly tutelage. The filmmaker takes his sweet time setting his trap, recognizing the real thrills to reside in their ostensible preparation. Two Step is a jolting, beautifully orchestrated piece of work.