When telling stories of the war on drugs, dealers are often portrayed as greedy if not overtly evil, while addicts are frequently exhibited as tragic or pathetic. But writer-director Jordan Ross extends earnest empathy to both in his feature debut, a gritty crime-thriller called Thumper. Making its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, this intriguing film travels through the volatile environment of a low-income neighborhood filled with broken homes, aimless teens, and impoverished everymen pushed to their limits to make ends meet.
Ross made his name helming a string of episodes of the MTV documentary series True Life. And he applies the show’s reliance on setting and observational moments to his narrative film with a keen eye. Thumper begins in a humble home in happy-enough chaos. Playing wily Wyatt, Orange is the New Black‘s Pablo Schreiber bobs and weaves around a dingy kitchen, a bouncing baby in one arm, a lounging toddler on the floor. His head is shaved, revealing scalp tattoos of spiders and cobwebs. His muscles bulge as he scrambles to get the kids ready and hollers for his unseen wife. She slumps in, bleery-eyed and irate, and is quickly jostled out as Troy (Grant Harvey), a bleach-blonde teen with shifty eyes, is ushered in for a drug deal. Also roped into this illicit home business is his doe-eyed pal Beaver (Daniel Webber).
Guided through a labyrinth of backyard toys, this suspicious threesome enters a locked-up shed where dangerous chemicals fill shelves, and where this burly meth cooker threatens to throw blinding acid in the eyes of any who cross him. But Wyatt isn’t a malicious man hell bent on hooking the wandering youth of his downtrodden neighborhood. As Thumper winds through its ensemble story of these men and the woman who comes between them, Wyatt’s revealed to be an Iraq War vet scraping by to feed his family and pay for the costly prescriptions that keep his battle-sparked anxieties at bay. He cooks meth, but only enough to keep his family fed. And when the teens who flock to him become too dependent, he not only turns them away, but chides them, “you’re better than this,” playing the role of the tough-love father that they may not have.
Yet Wyatt is not the protagonist of this picture, though Schreiber’s electric and swelling performance steals the show all the same. Instead, Thumper follows Beaver’s mysterious classmate Kat (The 100‘s Eliza Taylor), who claims she parties, but solidly shrugs off offers of drugs, and often asks too many questions. Naturally, Kat is a narc. And while she’s committed to cutting down on the poorly made street drugs that are causing ODs and deaths throughout her precinct, her scowling boss (Game of Thrones‘ Lena Headey in an almost comically underwritten role of sneers and vague threats) wants collars, even if it’s of petty dealing teens instead of big pushers.
In an ambitious move for a first-time filmmaker, Ross strives to not only tell the story of the undercover officer who feels torn between her private life–that contains a young son Kat rarely sees–and the well-being of these tricked teens, trapped by poverty and hooked on drugs. It’s a story that folds in a few characters too many, so several feel like little more than strung-out set dressing. Mostly, the movie focuses on Beaver, Kat, and Wyatt, and how her pursuit of the latter could make the former collateral damage. As more details of their lives are unfurled, it’s fascinating to see how each is trapped by their circumstances, be they abusive parents, pressure from a seething boss, or a culture that only values veterans superficially. And as this tense trio races into a suspenseful showdown, our hearts ache for each of them. Because while some will walk away from this climactic confrontation, there will be no outright winners. Pain is everyone’s prize.
To his credit, Ross has created a compelling premise that explores the drug war through an unnervingly humane lens. However, his overreach of so much backstory and so many characters leaves too little screen time to smoothly develop their arcs. There is little room for nuance, meaning Kat’s turn from chilly covert to infatuated ally feels forced and jarring, especially in one crotch-grabbing scene where she gets alarmingly intimate with her teen faux beau. It’s a trespass likely illegal, and at the very least a very bad idea. But Thumper is at too much a sprint at that point to take in the weight of its anti-hero’s actions.
All in all, this is a strong and engaging drama from a promising director who dares to urge empathy for figures traditionally dehumanized. And the performances are stirring. With his simple vulnerability, Webber plays a stellar foil to the Taylor’s alluring femme fatale. She steadily shoulders Kat’s overburdened arc, but can’t smooth the rough edges of Ross’s overeager script. In the end, its Schreiber who is the clear standout, playing both villain and festered hero with an exhilarating intensity and surprising tenderness that makes Thumper worth the cost of admission.
3 out of 5 burritos.
Images: Parliament of Owls