The characters of debuting writer/director Thomas Callaway’s rustic noir Broke Sky exist in a world perched somewhere between everyday reality and a slightly heightened, off-kilter pastiche of rural Americana. They booze it up at the local saloon, obsess over talent pageants, and dream of movin’ on up from a single- to a double-wide trailer; they also find themselves caught up in murder and near-operatic levels of personal disaster. Against the odds Callaway’s script (co-written with four other writers) melds its incongruent elements into a subversive, satisfying whole. Broke Sky assembles a unique world through cleverly deconstructing overworked genres, resulting in an original and highly rewarding low-key thriller.
Small-town lifers Bucky and Earl (Will Wallace and Joe Unger) spend their days shoveling roadkill for the county and waxing quasi-philosophic about the trials of life. Threatened by an ultra-efficient street sweeping system requiring only one operator, the boys hatch a scheme to out-perform and thus invalidate the new technology by working unsanctioned graveyard shifts in neighboring territories. Visiting a rundown house on the outskirts of town for a late-night service call, they uncover the body of a pretty young hitchhiker they had earlier helped through town. The impulsive Earl pushes them to hide their discovery, an act which sparks a series of catastrophes and twisted revelations.
As its characters’ bad decisions mount, Broke Sky’s tone shifts from ambling rural comedy to something much darker, ending as a sort of sneaky tragedy. Callaway and crew do the right thing by allowing these changes to bubble up and over on their own terms, fortifying the film’s gradual transition with increasingly darker compositions and restless framing (Callaway also D.P.ed the project). Minus the right approach the angle Broke Sky shoots for would play as disjointed and even dishonest, but it works due in large part to the filmmakers’ commitment in following their characters into the dark – the film, as a whole, changes gears.
While stepping behind the scenes as a director for the first time, Callaway is no stranger to true independent cinema; nor are his producers Jeff Burr and Eric Miller. The level of production evident in Broke Sky far outstrips the film’s modest budget, a testament to the difference a seasoned crew can make. Performances, particularly Unger as the aggressive Earl, are generally strong. Duane Whittaker, so good as the uber-sleazy Bossman in Feast, cleans up his act as the sweet-natured town sheriff. Some bit players are a little shaky, but that’s almost a given under the circumstances. Lensed in Waco, Texas, the film captures a distinctly American landscape with color-rich widescreen compositions. Soundtrack selections, a mixture of bluegrass and rock-and-roll from a bevy of indie artists, fit the mood nicely.
Highly-regarded on the festival circuit and representative of strong production values and talent laboring out of love and enthusiasm above and below the line, Broke Sky remains, inexplicably, without distribution. Filled with unique touches and unexpected wranglings of shopworn material, one imagines it’s only a matter of time before the right suitor comes along and ushers the film into the market proper. All the same, fest audiences are encouraged to take a chance should the picture unspool nearby.