Dale Coop returns home from the Navy to his brother Roy's apartment. No sooner has he sat down at his typewriter, preparing to transcribe the letters he sent his brother while abroad, and make a novel of them when there is a knock at the door. Two thugs, dressed in barbershop quartet attire come busting into the room. It is a case of mistaken identity but the two thugs must have something to show for their efforts and mercilessly beat Dale upon repeat visits. See, thing is, Roy and his partner, Mad Dog, have kidnapped the daughter of local crime lord Bobo. All Dale wanted to do was write his novel then relax in the lap of luxury the rest of his life. Unfortunately, he has no idea where his brother, Mad Dog or the girl are and that doesn't put a smile on the face of his oppressors. And he was told he wanted to see a smile on their faces.
I'm going to dub South of Heaven as Primary Color Noir. Here you've got this hard edge crime drama noir film but it's just so dang bright and colorful. If I were to describe it to I would say it is the love child of David Lynch, Joel and Ethan Coen and Chester Gould! It has a lot of good things going for it. Great characters. Great art direction. Great script. I have to trust my senses on that last one because we were stymied by poor sound so the often tight and wicked dialogue wasn't coming through so clear. And I was sitting there in our usual spot, row three, spitting distance from the screen! And because this film is so dialogue heavy I know I didn't get the complete dialogue but it was still easy enough to follow. But I saw and heard enough to at least recommend that lovers of the crime thriller give it a go.
In regards to character and acting standouts I would have to give props to Shea Whigham as Mad Dog Mantee. He has such a presence on the screen. He dominates each frame and his stares alone make grown men whimper. Then there are Jon Gries and Thomas Jay Ryan as the barbershop goons. Yes, they bust into the door with bright green sport coats with suspenders and spats, but they are ruthlessly efficient at their job and committed to their boss. They are rewarded with great scenes in the film.
Shooting solely on sets adds a certain intimacy to JL's film. He even went as far as to use backdrops behind the sets. It gave the film a nice texture and I felt brought the characters closer to the camera. There was a rawness to it. It looked very much like a stage play on film and there is always that intimacy that an stage audience shares with the actors; we're not so distant from the film when it is presented like this is.
Overall, it is an enjoyable film. A change from the usually dark, brooding and dimly lit crime thrillers as per usual. Twin Peaks meets early Coen brothers films like Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski meets Dick Tracy.