Debut features are more than a coming out, they often represent the clearest version of the individual. In the case of directors, debuts provide the most honest interpretation of how the director views the world. In the case of Jason B. Kohl’s New Money, the world is a cold, lonely place filled with selfish people, but it isn’t without hope. It isn’t without redemption, even if the cost of redemption is a price no one wants to pay. Led by a raw performance from Louisa Krause, New Money is a declarative statement on the complexity of addiction, the unintentional ancillary damage it causes, and the reality that money never equates to a peaceful soul.
Debbie Tisdale’s (Krause) 30th birthday should be a time of celebration. Unfortunately, she’s behind on her car payments, getting back into nursing school is going to cost far more than she makes in a year, and she can’t seem to quit taking oxy. It certainly doesn’t help that her boyfriend Steve (Brendan Sexton III), as supportive as he is, doesn’t want to quit. Despite all this, there is a ray of sunshine on the horizon: her wealthy dad’s (Chelcie Ross) promise to give her $50k as long as she worked hard and didn’t get pregnant by the time she’s 30. There’s just one wrinkle, since Debbie only reaches out when she needs something and Dad’s beginning to feel dementia set in, he cuts her off and removes her from his will under the guidance of his wife, Rose (Robin Weigert). Upset and feeling cornered, Debbie devises a plan to get her dad alone, but it all goes horribly wrong.
New Money is unlike most dramatic thrillers. It’s not interested in creating situations to ratchet tension or in any number of other tropes used to pad a runtime. Things occur naturally, escalating only as required and never more than needed. Kohl achieves this mostly because everything he presents – either as introduction, action, or obstacle – is meaningful in some way and is always in service of the story. Take the opening which sees how Debbie spends her 30th birthday: fighting with the automotive device tied to her car payments which keeps her car running, talking to a white rabbit about luck, meeting with a registrant at OTT Nursing Building, and pouring pills into a toilet. Each of these aspects makes-up the various pieces of Debbie’s identity and serves as the catalyst for all of her choices. She’s not just in debt, she’s so behind that a Talon is installed to track her movements and control car function. Nursing School represents a time when she was sober, when there was something more than seeking a fix. It also represents her true nature, that of a caring, empathic individual who wants to help rather than hurt. For New Money, the inner conflict between who she sees herself to be and who she becomes creates the driving factor for everything. She’s desperate, but not malicious, and that distinction maintains the audience’s sympathy. In another sequence, as Rose is struggling to find her husband, she has a revelation after noticing something in her home. This revelation introduces a natural wrinkle in Debbie’s plan, but also reminds the audience of how well Rose knows her husband. Since most of what the audience learns about Rose is from Debbie’s perspective, providing a chance to see Rose’s side makes the character also more sympathetic. At its core, the narrative of New Money focuses on the psychology of all the characters. By placing their values in conflict with their perspective, the resulting drama is both natural and effecting.
Without imposing synthetic contrivances to heighten tension, Kohl relies on the performances to keep the audience enthralled. Krause not only headlines the film, she steals the show. Considering the lengths Debbie goes to get what she believes she’s owed, the audience should recoil, yet Krause imbues the character with complexity and depth. Debbie’s not a monster. She’s just in denial about the root of her problem: her inability to take responsibility for her actions. What’s particularly interesting about the performance is how the character is 30, which should come with some maturity, yet Krause uses tonal inflections and the decision-making skills of someone far younger as though Debbie’s stunted developmentally, despite being an incredibly capable individual. Playing opposite her, Sexton III delivers a bittersweet performance. Through Sexton II, Steve’s hyper-aware of who he is and how his choices impact others, especially Debbie, yet is unable to change who he is. This requires Sexton III the play Steve on multiple levels at once. He’s a character constantly searching for his next score and wants what’s best for Debbie, but, conversely, he takes no pleasure in Debbie’s drug use and is reticent for her to be aware of his past. More than anything, Sexton III plays Steve as fully knowledgeable of who he is in contrast to Debbie’s forced ignorance, a notion which comes out beautifully when Steve admits to feeling like a fraud in the new clothes and haircut the money provided. The money doesn’t change who he is, he’s the same person in a new shell. Sexton III’s performance here not only breaks your heart, but wonderfully underscores Kohl’s subtext of New Money. In supporting, though not inconsequential roles, Weigert and Ross are phenomenal. Weigert ensures that Rose escapes the reductive role of money-hungry step-mother as the depth of her pain is made clear over and over through the lengths she’s willing to go. Some of this, of course, is due to Kohl’s script, but Weigert makes it all believable. Interestingly, Ross is given the least to do, however, his work drives home the conclusion through his subtlety. His character is the living-breathing ticking clock as Debbie’s dad Boyd suffers from mixed dementia, which is growing worse each day. For Debbie, it provides an opportunity for her to painlessly get what she wants, but it comes at the cost of Boyd’s reality. By the end, Ross’s powerful performance in his interactions with Weigert and Krause do more to gut-punch the audience than any manufactured drama could.
If nothing else convinces you that writer/director Jason B. Kohl has something to say about our modern times, take a moment to think about his title: New Money. By itself, it’s an innocuous but coded term referencing the newly rich, a type of person or persons who doesn’t inherit money, but acquires it. Despite the notion of the American Dream being each citizen’s ability to rise above their station, a lovely novel idea, there’s a darker edge to it, a notion that money, by itself, without hard work or effort or dedication to a craft or kindness to others, brings happiness and determines success. In combination with an undercurrent of familial discord due to illness both genetic and medicinal, the narrative within New Money is a powder-keg of emotion. In the end, Kohl’s New Money, beautifully shot, scored, and performed, is an indictment of prescription culture, presenting a complicated perspective on addiction, one in which everyone is a victim, no matter how you look at it.
No special features available at the time of review.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning April 16th, 2019.
Available on VOD including Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, and Google Play now.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.