I first saw Brooklyn filmmaker Bryan Wizemann’s debut feature Losing Ground at Cinequest last year and was struck by how uncompromised it was and how true it felt. Set entirely in a video poker bar in Las Vegas, it unfolds in real time, deftly sketching psychological portraits of some desperate but recognizable human types: a lovely but hard-living young woman named Michelle (Eileen O’Connell) who hopes a jackpot can save her, at least temporarily, from having to sell her body to pay the bills; a speed freak (Monique Vukovic) who’s trying to rebuild her relationship with her estranged adult son by sending him gambling earnings; a pissed-off young man (Matthew Mark Meyer) who lost $3000 in the bar the night before, and his new girlfriend (Rhonda Keyser), who unfortunately used to date the bartender (Kendall Pigg), a booze-dispensing diplomat whose patience for bad behavior is not limitless. These characters barely have a chance to find a barroom rhythm when they’re rattled by a new arrival, a magnetic loner in a ten-gallon hat (played by John Good with a mix of genial confidence and faint but palpable menace) who proceeds to have good luck with the same machine that ate the sore loser’s money.
Wizemann originally produced Losing Ground as an Off Broadway play presented by actor-filmmaker-theater guru Tom Noonan, who helped Wizemann develop it in workshops. Fans of Noonan’s work will pick up on certain shared dramatic values. They include the claustrophobic use of a single location (as in Noonan’s superb date drama What Happened Was…); the prizing of subtext over text (this is one of those “nothing happens” films where a great deal happens); and last but not least, an unnerving tone that’s poised between naturalism and fable. At various points Good’s character suggests an angel, a devil or some sort of deus ex machina, but the director never tips his hand. Mark Schwartzbard’s cinematography enhances this purgatorial feel, crushing the blacks to separate these lonesome characters from their environment and each other. Wizemann cites John Huston’s Fat City—a sad and beautiful drama about a broken down boxer, with photography by Conrad Hall and music by Kris Kristofferson—as an inspiration. You can see the lineage, but more importantly, you can feel it. Like Huston’s film, “Losing Ground” has a wrung-out rueful quality that reminds me of the mindset I acquire after a long and regrettable night of drinking. In fact, it’s now hard for me to hear Johnny Cash’s cover of Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” without thinking of this movie:
“I’d smoked my brain the night before,
On cigarettes and songs I’d been pickin’.
But I lit my first and watched a small kid,
Cussin’ at a can that he was kicking.
Then I crossed the empty street,
’n caught the Sunday smell of someone fryin’ chicken.
And it took me back to somethin’,
That I’d lost somehow, somewhere along the way.”
Losing Ground plays one show tonight at 7 p.m. The Pioneer Theater in Lower Manhattan. For Odienator’s review, plus a revealing anecdote from his own gambling experience, click here.