We critics are prone to making smart-Aleck allusions to Chekov’s gun on the wall. “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired,” the great man is purported to have said. Normally the phrase is employed analogously, but, in Juanita Wilson’s adaptation of a Daniel Woodrell novel, a revolver really is hung on an actual wall.
It would be wrong to say if Ms Wilson follows Chekov’s dictum, but we can confirm that the story does eventually deliver on a great deal of ominous foreshadowing. In the final act something does happen that makes the slow start worthwhile.
Wilson, the Irish director of As If I Was Not There has, of necessity, moved Woodrell's tale from the Ozarks to the American South (though the film is shot in British Columbia). The lean, dangerous Jake Weary stars as a layabout drifter named Sammy Barlach. During one particularly useless period, he runs into Jamalee (Julia Garner), whose ketchup-coloured hair is referenced in the title, and her handsome, dissolute brother Jason (Nick Roux). At first glance, the pair seem like something out of a Wes Anderson film: her head is really insanely red; he is at home to an ambiguous sexuality. But when we meet their trailer park mom Bev (Anna Friel), we realise we are in glummer territory altogether.
Woodrell's work has generated two excellent films: Ang Lee's Ride With The Devil and Debra Granik's Winter's Bone. Here his prose translates with mixed results. Much of the hard-boiled dialogue is excellent. "You ain't going to get bowlegged from toting your brains around," somebody says. But the voiceover is often too Biblical in its rhythms. Poetic license allows this stuff to settle on the page.
When the story eventually kicks in, the film gains an impressive weight. Until that point it gets by on sass, atmosphere and strong performances. Friel plays against type to good effect. Cinematographer Piers McGrail, who did such good work on Donal Foreman's Out of Here, revels in the faux-western landscapes. The picture is not in the same class as the two previous Woodrell adaptations, but it has unmistakable personality.