By Christopher P. Jacobs
Last weekend I was able to catch up with two independent features made in Minnesota, one on video and the other actually showing in a local multiplex. I was out of town back in September of 2010 when Dan Glaser’s “Pinching Penny” premiered at the Fargo Theatre, but was finally able to see the DVD, which was commercially released in late 2011. Caspian Tredwell-Owen’s “Profile of a Killer” premiered last month in Minneapolis and just finished a week’s run at the River Cinema 15 in East Grand Forks, as it gradually works its way around the region and the country theater by theater. It opens April 19 in Bemidji and Owatonna, MN.
Both films deal with crime as a way of exploring various personality dysfunctions and social issues deeper than their surface plots. Interestingly, “Pinching Penny” features upper Midwesterners effectively playing characters from Great Britain and is even done somewhat in the style of modern British cinema by its Fargo-native writer-director, whereas “Profile of a Killer” is a vivid and very American-looking portrait of Midwestern life from a British-born writer-director.
“Profile of a Killer” is a taut, well-written, and beautifully acted suspense thriller about a retired FBI crime profiler recruited to analyze some unusual (and apparently related) homicides in rural Minnesota shortly before Christmas. As is typical of this kind of story, the criminologist and the criminal find themselves in a competition of matched wits. What’s unusual this time is that the killer is an obviously bright but troubled teenage boy who soon manages to take his investigator hostage, which was his real plan from the beginning. The boy is obsessed not so much with killing and disposing of bodies, leaving mysterious clues for the police, or with media attention (all of which figure into his motivations), but primarily with forcing the professional profiler to do a profile on him.
Meanwhile young FBI Special Agent Rachel Cade (Emily Fradenburgh) has taken aggressive charge of the case, trying to track down every lead and clue while the now-imprisoned FBI psychologist Saul Aitken (Gabriele Angieri) must try to predict the next moves of his taunting captor David (Joey Pollari), lest the boy kill someone else as the next move in his deadly game.
In many ways, the plot seems to be a fairly standard police procedural and certain elements are a bit predictable, although there are a number or surprises. However, the script’s character development and especially the strong, believable performances give it a depth and drama far beyond the usual mystery thriller that focuses more on action and suspense. In “Profile of a Killer” we have a story of the different sorts of alienation, internalization, and mental coping that each of the three central characters are dealing with, all in very different ways.
We find a killer who is both ruthlessly reprehensible, yet also fragile and vulnerable, a dysfunctional victim of his own (and perhaps others’) unrealistic expectations. We find a detective desperate to prove herself after living with her own personal trauma. We find a professional profiler discovering that, contrary to his years of experience, not everyone can be fit into some standard profile - or can they?
“Profile of a Killer” has some striking cinematography of the Minnesota snowscapes, and is effectively edited to keep up the tension throughout its 108-minute running time. It’s got the best attributes of slick Hollywood crime thrillers as well as a freshness in attitude more common with independent cinema.
“Pinching Penny” may handle some similar themes and plot elements (notably kidnapping and murder) as “Profile of a Killer,” but is the diametric opposite in both style and attitude. It’s an outrageously over-the-top black comedy that calls to mind films like “Snatch” and “Trainspotting,” with more than a hint of “Fargo” from time to time, although unlike the latter, it is actually set in Fargo-Moorhead.
Two buddies, one from England and one from Scotland, find themselves living in Fargo without much in the way of financial means. This is a big problem for cockney Alex (Steven Molony), who has become hopelessly addicted to buying things he doesn’t need. He and his friend Murphy (Timothy J. Meyer) attempt a few robberies to obtain some valuables, especially money to fuel Alex’s addiction, but they go horribly wrong. On their second burglary they meet Teddi (Ginny Glaser), a beautiful but extremely aggressive young woman with shady connections who is in the process of cleaning out her ex-boyfriend’s place when they blunder in.
Alex doesn’t really want to rob, however, because his high comes from the joy of purchasing things, not stealing them. Teddi suggests they should try kidnapping as a means of raising money, and coordinates a plan to grab the daughter of a wealthy community member, a girl named Penny (Lauren J. Wertz) that Alex soon discovers he has already met while trying to rob a supermarket and has a bit of a crush on. Since they can’t get their ransom money immediately, Teddi connects them with a local drug ring, made up of out-of-work actors who turned to crime after they couldn’t make it big. Of course they get in deeper and deeper, especially Alex, as one thing leads to another.
The highly entertaining performances by the cast keep the dark and increasingly bloodier and more violent material, not to mention the relentless stream of profanity, from becoming oppressive. What keeps it engrossing, however, is how completely unpredictable it becomes. It’s all but impossible to anticipate the oddball and truly bizarrely ironic twists the plot takes. Essentially an intense morality play, “Pinching Penny” explores the extremes people will do to support an addiction, and cleverly contrasts such obviously damaging addictions as drugs and alcohol with the apparently more benign (or at least more respectable) addiction to shopping and consumerism.
Glaser’s first feature is an impressive example of what can be accomplished with local talent and virtually no budget. Fans of irreverent dark comedy and independent cinema should find it very rewarding.
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