These days, “independent” films tend to be as mass marketed and hyped as their Hollywood counterparts. True independent films, that is to say, works by directors who are trying to establish their own art, has almost fallen by the wayside. When was the last time you saw a film like Richard Linklater’s Slacker? No, not a film that has a similar set up, but a film that was made by someone trying out the medium for the first time, essentially making the film with his friends, and seeing what worked and what did not?
I say this because Flight of the Cardinal is one of those independent films. It is not perfect. But then, it was never going to be. What it is is a very competent thriller that shows what skills director Robert Gaston possesses.
The film revolves around Grady Wilson (Ross Beschler), a former aspiring actor, trying to open a lodge in the North Carolina mountains. His only staff member is a young man named Beetle Hobbs (David Bonner), a young man who has been living in the town all of his life. One weekend, Grady’s former agent Karen (Claire Bowerman) and his boyfriend Andy (Matthew Montgomery) come to see him. Grady begins acting strangely, and Beetle uses the opportunity to destroy Grady’s reputation…and possibly his life.
Ken Hanke once wrote that people always start their careers imitating the films that they admire. If that is the case, then Gaston must be an enormous fan of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. The film explores many of the same themes (sans the extreme violence) including outsiders coming into a new culture and a meek man who suddenly gains the power to stand up for himself.
Now, the film is not as polished as Straw Dogs. But then, that is the equivalent of saying that an art student in college does not produce works at the same level as Matisse. Gaston has managed to get most of those themes right without being demeaning to the subjects or the areas he is talking about. For the most part, every character is a fine person, but possesses flaws. It is never stated that Grady is better or worse than anyone else, which is vital to make the film work.
Now, if the film had made Grady a perfect figure, the film could have been another work to divide the “hip, cool” audience with the rest of America. The term “fly over country” is one that is getting rather tiring. Yes, it has been used before for good ends, but I cannot remember the last time it felt fresh. Yes, I know that it would have been easy to make the film a parable about how the “evil” south needs to adapt to the “modern” views of New York City and other such places.
But it also would have been thematically disastrous. Many filmmakers have already explored that theme, for one. For another, it would have made it far too easy to empathize with Beetle. Who would not view Grady as smug if he acted with feelings of superiority to everyone else? Gaston did the right thing by focusing on the characters and their interactions with each other.
The actors really make the work stand out. Each character needed to be a well rounded figure, and they succeeded. No one is a stereotype, and everyone acts in the way that they should in this situation. Ross Beschler, in particular, deserves mention. He plays a whole range of Gradys, from the emotionally destroyed Grady to the Grady finally taking charge with his situation. So dramatic are the divisions that it is almost as though these moods are completely separate parts of his psyche. Again, it reminds me of the range Dustin Hoffman had to play in Straw Dogs. Luckily, Grady’s range does make somewhat more sense. His end is one of some hope, unlike Straw Dogs’ bleakness.
Now, there is a major flaw in the film, and I feel that I must address it: the characterization of Beetle Hobbs. Now, Bonner gave a fine performance, but I was left confused as to what purpose the character served. At certain points in the film, he seemed to be a man who hates homosexuals for religious reasons. Other times, he is just envious of Grady and wants the success he has. Still at other times, he is an all purpose psychopath. Maybe this was done to give the character more depth, but the result was that the motivations were difficult to follow. Considering that Beetle is the primary villain, this becomes rather important. Better would have been maybe to keep Beetle’s motives hidden and remove some of the exposition surrounding it.
This will probably be the most obscure film I review all year. I have a feeling it will become important at some point in the future. Gaston is going places; mark my words.