It's not often that one sees, within the course of our pastime excursions into commonplace entertainment, something that transcends what it appears to be. By all appearances, the independent film Cost of a Soul, looked to be another slightly twisted ghetto flick. I was thinking perhaps some combination of Four Brothers, Three Kings and The Town. But this film turned out to be quite remarkable - one that goes one better on all of those movies. It is that rare film, a genuine tragedy.
The texture of the film is artistic, there are hallmarks of a unique style. There are close ups. There is classical music. There is black and white. There is shaky cam. There are rolling street scenes and haunting echoed saxophone. There are rapid montages. There is crying faded to black. All of these well worn signatures add up to more than their sum. But the single most dramatic effect of this entire film is the single gunshot. The pistol has never been so dramatically cast. It reminds me of the way in which Speilberg in Saving Private Ryan made the sound effects of every other war movie sound cheap by comparison. Cost of a Soul has redefined the deadly pop and muzzle flash.
There is no other film this resembles so much as Blood Simple in its haunting simplicity, and there has never been such a matter of fact tragedy as this has proven to be. If the question is how do you make an art film that doesn't become preachy and yet sends a deadly message home with finality, Cost of a Soul is the answer.
The story is simple with all the appropriate twists, but there is no humor and no sly wit involved. There are no overworked emotional nudges. The entire screenplay is drily matter of fact. Here are the obligations of family and these are the deadly enemies of domestic tranquility - the drug dealer, the corrupt cop, the mob boss. How can two Iraq War veterans work it out when they've got nowhere to go? This is the kind of story that you might have expected Dragon Tatoo to be if it didn't drip into the pornographic. In that regard this is a classic American hard knock story, stripped of sentiment and driven to the point. And it delivers shot after shot, tragedy after tragedy until the last men fall.
They all fall down.
You can watch the film and know that it will all end in tears. You can get through the awkward moments and the single McGuffin borrowed from Pulp Fiction, the mysterious briefcase. But because this story is a tragedy, not a caper, not a mystery, not a gangster film, not a war movie, you don't expect to see what you do see. You see the good die. You see the bad die. You see the innocent and the guilty, the corrupt and the innocent strung together into the sort of destruction that is at once predictable and surprising. Surprising because there is no escape. There is no redemption. There is eyes wide open revenge that steamrolls every zigzag you imagine might lead to a better outcome.
There are passages of dialog and close ups that capture superb moments of acting. There are monologues worthy of Tarantino but remain sparse. There are silences that speak volumes. And yet it is raw - not quite into Demme territory. There isn't a single cast member that dominates, instead it is a morality tale that stays simple and powerful. That it does so with such a deft balance is what marks this as a surprisingly superb and yet raw bit of filmmaking.
I think in a certain way this film will always be compared to Hustle and Flow. The difference is that dreams die harder here. Tragedy. It's something new in contemporary American film. I wonder if we can get used to it.