If you’re familiar with Cameron Van Hoy, it may be because of his work as Eddie Alvarez in STARZ’s Crash or as Deputy Duke in the hilarious slasher-comedy Tragedy Girls (2017). With luck, thanks to his feature-length directorial debut Flinch, audiences will have another reason to know the name, along with the face. His script tells a story audiences are a bit familiar with: bad guy with a conscious meets a girl at the wrong time, gets in over his head, and has to try to make good. Thankfully, reading it on paper is vastly different than seeing it in action as Van Hoy displays the kind of patience, spatial awareness, and narrative control of someone with more feature experience, resulting in a crime thriller with enough surprises to keep you locked in, following his hitman with a heart of gold all the way until the job is done.
Like his father before him, Joe Doyle (Daniel Zovatto) is a hitman working for local Los Angeles crime boss Lee Capitan (David Proval). While staking out his latest target, City Councilman Ed Terzian (Tom Segura), Joe’s attention is distracted by the sight of Terzian’s assistant, Mia Rose (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). He is so distracted that when he fulfills the contract and Mia becomes a witness, Joe can’t pull the trigger to deal with her as he’s mesmerized by her lack of recoil as she stares down the barrel of his gun. Unable to dispose of her, he brings her to his home to formulate a plan. Caught between the needs of his responsibilities under Capitan and the lessons his father told him, Joe has to decide his next move carefully as it may be his last.
With the opening notes of the score from Miami Nights 1984, you know you’re in for the kind of morally-skewed crime thriller that’s going to result in a lot of dead bodies. The hypnotic synth beats incorporated with the occasional deep bass notes imply a tale of lust and blood, both of which Van Hoy delivers. With assistance from cinematographer Kai Saul (“Metallica: Hardwired;” “Lady Gaga: Million Reasons”), Flinch is a work where the night is filled with well-placed shadows, the day is sweltering, and home is a contradictory place of peace and the forbidden. The entire mood that Van Hoy establishes in the opening and maintains throughout is impressive in of itself, as one wouldn’t expect quite so much dark desire to remain as appealing after the movie is well underway. Part of this is due to the pacing of the film, with Van Hoy understanding when to push on the gas, when to pull back, and when to push a little harder. The hypnotic beats wouldn’t be enough in the opening to garner attention, though they do elicit some lovely 1980’s nostalgia, but with the staging of an action sequence to establish just how good of a hitman Joe is, even before we formally meet him, the energy of the action comes up to meet the score, blending into a cacophony of badassery you’d expect from a John Wick film. The opening, in addition to showing off Joe’s skills, also shows the audience how Van Hoy understands that what we, the audience, don’t see matters as much as what we do. The menace of the unknown raises Joe’s profile from typical gunman to the level of Tom Cruise’s Vincent in Collateral (2004) or John Cusack’s Martin Q. Blank in Grosse Pointe Blank (1997). It’s worth nothing that with the characterization and performance from Zovatto, Joe is far more like Cusack’s contemplative Martin than Cruise’s stone cold Vincent. Digression aside, by only allowing the audience to see some of Joe and focus primarily on the carnage highlights Van Hoy’s understanding of how mystique empowers the character and enhances the audience’s appreciation for what they see.
While the hook of the film comes from the dilemma of Joe deciding what to do with Mia, the meat of the film, and what makes it so compelling, is the complicated internal struggle the audience finds Joe in before he even meets Mia. Without spoilers, Joe’s life is one of servitude. He’s either serving his mother Gloria, played wonderfully by Cathy Moriarty (Raging Bull), the legacy of his father Joseph (Steven Bauer), or the Almighty. This trinity creates the murky moral waters from which Joe experiences the world. A world, it appears from his day job at a shooting range, he would rather escape from rather than remain a servant to. This is where Flinch gets interesting, because the decision to stay Mia’s certain execution, at first, seems to be in opposition to the very masters to whom Joe must adhere, yet, with patience, the audience learns that her life is spared as a means of honoring the rules from which Joe was brought up. This, right here, is where Flinch maintains its narrative tension as Joe’s confusion over what to do is more than the atypical response or the one audiences expect to turn the crime thriller into a love story in the vein of True Romance (1993); rather, it becomes the catalyst for the kind of betrayals that destroy without leaving a wound.
Assisting in elevating a story we’ve seen countless times are performances from a cast seemingly plucked from the pages of a dime store pulp fiction story. Zovatto brings a cool confidence to the character, which makes Joe appear deadly when necessary yet vulnerable when the scene calls for it. Like any good crime thriller, with each new turn, with each new revelation, Zovatto’s performative choices convey a mindfulness of the moment. In order for the audience to keep Joe as our cypher, we need to feel some kind of sympathy and the combination of Van Hoy’s writing and Zovatto’s delivery extracts sympathy for this particular devil. For those concerned about the usual hyper-masculine elements which seem unavoidable in this style of story, Cobham-Hervey is more than capable of holding her own as the captive. If you’re unfamiliar with her work, I recommend 2019’s Burn, which sees Cobham-Hervey portraying a sociopath given an opportunity to express her internal frustrations. It’s a performance that makes her turn as Mia even more compelling as you can almost see the internal switches and knobs going as Cobham-Hervey as Mia vies for her survival, each choice seemingly leading to a shallow grave. Van Hoy’s measured control of the narrative means that even the audience is unsure of what Joe will do next; not that the character is a loose cannon, but that he’s created for himself a zero-sum game in which he’s surely the loser no matter the choice. In supportive roles, Moriarty and Proval are great fun. Moriarty’s performance elevates the Italian-American mother stereotypes into something charming and sweet, where a mother’s love is a thing of purity and support, even if it means doing the wet work her child refuses to do. Proval is given less to do than Moriarty, yet offers something more memorable by the sheer fact that he, too, refuses the crime boss stereotypes often thrust onto this type of character. In a bit of a breakout role is Buddy Duress as James, Capitan’s son and right hand. He’s been seen in an uncredited roll in The Mountain (2018), as well as in a devastating turn as Ray in Good Time (2017), but here Duress is a bit more front-and-center, taking command of each scene he appears in.
Though anchored in the present, Van Hoy’s Flinch is as much a tribute to the noirs of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Writing this review, listening to Miami Nights 1984’s score on loop, the world of Flinch comes rushing into my mind. At once seductive and dangerous with terrors lurking around every corner and chaste and wholesome with knights seen and unseen ready to defend the meek, it’s as much a sumptuous visual treat — either in the red-basked glow of Joe’s bedroom or the natural lit Los Angeles — as it is a thoughtful adventure tale, exploring how subservience to others beyond yourself can lead to absolute rumination. It’s as though Van Hoy presents a two-fold warning: beware anyone who cannot serve themselves and beware those who don’t flinch in the face of violence.
Head to the official Flinch website for more information.
Update 1/22/21: Due to a positive drive-in response, the VOD release is being postponed to a later date.
In select theaters January 15th, 2021.
Available on VOD TBD.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.