Filmmaking debut, The Riot Act, is an ambitious project with a surprisingly low budget. Set in the year 1901 and the state of Oklahoma, The Riot Act focuses on how murder in a small frontier town leads to the haunting of the murderer, town patriarch Dr. Willard Pearrow (Brett Cullen). Other than being the town doctor, Pearrow also owns the local opera house, and it is in the meeting of the theatrical with the supernatural that the film finds some interesting ground to tread. Pearrow welcomes a troupe of progressive vaudevillians from the east, and it is then that the film’s ghostly narrative takes proper shape as a revenge tale.
The Riot Act’s hybrid plot is ably applied to a period piece that shows fine attention to the necessary details allowing the audience to be transported to a different time and place. Writer/director of the film, Devon Parks, capably adapts a real-life story and delivers an entertaining, if sometimes credulity-stretching, tale to the screen.
Devon Park’s attention to detail, as far as period piece goes, is very impressive, immersing the audience in the film’s setting. The performances, despite the curious casting of the slight-framed Connor Price as the town smithy, are solid, with Lauren Sweetser giving a plausible portrayal of the daughter of Dr. Pearrow and co-conspirator in the revenge plot against him. However, Brett Cullen is the standout as the villainous Pearrow. His Chris Cooper-ish Middle America gravitas imbues Pearrow with plenty of menace and elevates what could be a two-dimensional role into a compelling antagonist.
The Riot Act’s structure is thematically complex, tackling a wide variety of ideas and specific issues, including the clash of social classes, the eastern establishment finding itself out of its element in the small western frontier town, the artifice of the theatrical world casting a long shadow across the veneer of polite reality, and the question of spiritual versus material reality. While there may be some narrative implausibilities, they never derail the story, and while the story takes on a bit more thematically then it can ultimately deliver, it is generally preferable that a film’s reach exceeds its grasp than to play it safe and keep one’s hands in one’s pockets.
Parks’s script has a lot of moving pieces. His supporting characters prove far more intriguing than the three leads and, as the central thriller elements develop, the audience desires more of the stage performances by the traveling vaudeville troupe. One especially effective routine has the company performing a murder. This play-within-a-play is a clear homage to Shakespeare. However, Parks refuses to go full-Hamlet here, which is frustrating, especially, as the film draws to a conclusion.
Still, the production establishes the period well, and the part of the country (Van Buren, Arkansas) is a type of place we’ve rarely seen on screen. It’s a unique project that’s not without charms. Brett Cullen and Lauren Sweetser make a convincing father/daughter combination, but the contrived circumstances surrounding their parting make the characterizations awkward and ever-stilted. It’s as if Parks anchors them to a stage, especially during the film’s opening murder which needed more energy. However, Parks’s deliberate direction does cast the players into a time and place in which events happen more slowly and a murder may have been easier to conceal.
The visual sensibilities of the movie are excellent, having been lensed by cinematographer Travis Joiner. And it’s good that the film has a solid score from Kevin Croxton (Girl in Woods). This helps Parks deliver a really high-end looking film from a very limited budget. If the director did this having spent the money on the period production design, what could he do with something contemporary?
The Riot Act offers a unique and well thought out production design, great attention to detail, and a lot of strong and impactful themes that can resonate with millions of people, all done with a shoe-string of a budget. It has a lot to admire as an indie period piece. The locations are beautiful, the acting is more than serviceable, and Parks’s debut shows plenty of promise.
For more information on The Riot Act head to the official website.
Available on VOD and digital beginning October 8th, 2019.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.