Public Ransom, A (2014)

US / 99 minutes / bw / Denver/Goines, Kuboa Dir & Story: Pablo D’Stair Pr: Lisette Goines, Denver Alexander Scr: Pablo D’Stair, Goodloe Byron Cine: Paul VanBrocklin (i.e., Pablo D’Stair) Cast: Carlyle Edwards (i.e., Pablo D’Stair), Helen Bonaparte, Goodloe Byron.

Public Ransom 0 - scene setter

Director Pablo D’Stair (who is also Carlyle Edwards) tells much of the story of the making of this movie in a guest blog on one of Paul D. Brazill’s sites: “Some brief and freeform history of the making of A PUBLIC RANSOM.” In brief, D’Stair set out to use the absolute minimalist approach: no money (in the end he spent about $750), a tiny cast, the cheapest possible equipment and very little of it, no camera movement, no color, etc. There is in effect a larger cast than the three characters corresponding to the three actors listed above, but all of those others exist only as the unheard other ends of the frequent verbose cellphone conversations in which our main protagonist, Steven LaSalle (Edwards), participates.

Steven is a “writer”—which is to say, someone who talks a lot about himself being a writer and his writerly sensibilities, but who seems to do very little of the actual writing part and even less of the getting published. He is entirely narcissistic, entirely devoted to the cultivation of his self-image and the satisfaction of his every whim or desire. We are, throughout the movie, made to despise him more and more for his untrustworthiness, his duplicity, his faithlessness and his cowardice. The combination of Steven’s personality with all the technical limitations described above—plus the sometimes manifest amateur status of the actors—should make A Public Ransom painful to watch, but in fact the combination is oddly hypnotic.

Public Ransom 2 - Steven has one of his many phonecalls

Steven (Carlyle Edwards) has yet another of his phonecalls . . .

One night after he’s been thrown out by the wife off whom he’s apparently been sponging, Lisa, because of his adultery with someone called Deb, he comes across a poster done in a childish hand claiming that a child is missing and giving a phone number. Having found a temporary roost with old friend Rene (Bonaparte), Steven tells her the poster has given him the idea for a story: what if the poster has been placed by the child’s kidnapper and then someone—like himself—sees it and phones the number? Would that someone find himself on the receiving end of a ransom demand?

Public Ransom 1 - the poster

The poster.

So he phones the number and speaks to a man who fixes up a meet with him. That man proves to be another writer, Bryant Kildaire (Byron), this time one who genuinely writes and gets published—and even has a novel to prove it, Animals and Their Antonyms, its cover bearing rave quotes from the likes of Bret Easton Ellis. Bryant claims he has genuinely kidnapped a small child, Claire Gowers, and gives Steven two weeks to come up with a ransom of a mere $2000. Somehow, for Steven, this becomes all about Steven, and he does zilch to save the child until finally, after Bryant claims to have slain Claire and framed her child-molesting uncle, Morton Scotch, for the crime, Steven scrounges $2000, too late, off the overly tolerant Lisa.

Public Ransom 3 - the official Missing advertisement

The official Missing Person advertisement.

By then Bryant has bedded Rene (or vice versa). Even though not in any kind of physical relationship with Rene, Steven is clearly jealous—leading to one of the movie’s best exchanges:

Rene: “You’re not sore because of Bryant, are you?”
Steven: “Not in the least.”
Rene (smugly): “Because I am.”

Far more significantly, it becomes clear to us that, while Steven thought he could use the poster as a kicking-off point for a story, in fact Bryant is using all the events and circumstances as the basis for his new novel, in which Steven is the central character. Bryant tells Steven this is a co-authorship and Steven, too craven for writerly recognition and fame to contradict him, accepts the situation—even promoting the pretense to legendary small-press publisher Philip Dross (by phone, of course) and heavily editing the text to which he has contributed nothing except his own detestable behavior. One definite improvement he makes is to the title, changing it from A Society of Fiends to A Public Ransom.

Public Ransom 4 - Steven even revises the manuscript's title

What editors do.

And so the tale rolls onward, with Steven locked into a perpetual downward spiral of vileness, until finally even Rene can’t stand him any longer . . .

D’Stair has written that A Public Ransom—which is filmed really more in black-and-sepia than black-and-white—is “visually inspired by the early films of Bresson, Fassbinder, and Jarmusch”; to this humble viewer it seemed visually more reminiscent of the cheaper end of the film noir canon: a PRC or Monogram outing, perhaps. The acting has some of the same caliber (although, because of the static camera, it must have been far more difficult than it might appear). Some of the scenes do seem to drag on far too long, like Steven’s first meeting with Bryant, his final row with Rene, and in particular a hallway conversation he has with Rene during which she spends interminable minutes adjusting and readjusting her headwear and coat rather than going out the door, which would have involved a change of camera setup.

Public Ransom 5 - Rene and Steven discuss R having slept with Bryant

Rene (Helen Bonaparte) and Steven (Carlyle Edwards) spend a long time trying to go out the door.

Those are the negatives. The positive is that, as noted, the movie as a whole is strangely engrossing. It’s helped along its way by a by-and-large very good soundtrack, good enough that for once I noted the song credits at the end:

  • “Chumbawa” and “Midnight Blues” by the Detroit Cobras
  • “Manager on Duty” and “Sadie” by Pedro Gonzalez-Fernandez
  • “Whiskey C’est la Mort” and “Mayor Sally” by Goodloe Byron
  • “A/Non-A”, “Pretty Piece/Disappear”, “Shooting an Elephant”, “Activate Your Cancelled Check”, “We Can Build You” and “We Are on Ghost Ships” by Bellflur

Public Ransom 6 - the webpage S reads confirming the murder + suicide

=====

Movie’s official website: http://wp.me/4mug3

On Vimeo.com: https://vimeo.com/89132121

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11 thoughts on “Public Ransom, A (2014)

  1. “D’Stair has written that A Public Ransom—which is filmed really more in black-and-sepia than black-and-white—is “visually inspired by the early films of Bresson, Fassbinder, and Jarmusch”; to this humble viewer it seemed visually more reminiscent of the cheaper end of the film noir canon: a PRC or Monogram outing.”

    John I have not seen this film yet, but was most fascinated with your acute examination here. Yes, more often than not people are quick to point out comparisons with some of cinema’s greatest geniuses, and it simply cheapens the art to do so. Sight unseen I am inclined to stand behind your perception. To be fair you do cite all the aspects you feel are well-rendered.

    • Thanks for the kind words, as always! The movie’s actually well worth a watch, if you have the time — in fact, I’d love to know your take on it. Despite all the faults (both budget-induced and otherwise), I found it oddly involving . . . and I’m not 100% sure why!

    • Hi guys–figured I’d pop in as I think it’s a very fine point, Sam. I think, to expand, that I mentioned those names having more to do with the spirit (my perception of it) of the type of film I was, personally, aiming for. I agree a lot of people drop names to sneakily align a film with another for suspect reasons and it can get silly (in my own film essays, I often point out this same thing), I mentioned those names because–regardless of my outcome–they were specifically on my mind and, better or worse, I wanted it understood that it was not a “plot piece” or “straight noir outing” I had in mind as a filmmaker (the critical responses to it, one can observe, are almost broken down a line of people who think I “messed up a noir thriller” and those who think I did a good job with an “artsy, meta-exploration of the Writer Identity”). The film, indeed as some reviewers have made minute note of, is flagrantly adorned with posters, books, background notes of its influences–there, along with its odd style, to as best as I can always have an undercurrent of suggesting “this isn’t going to be a traditional thriller, fair warning”. The most direct influence for me was actually Lars von Trier’s Epidemic (my film is nothing like it, but I feel was made in the same spirit). Anyway–don;t take any of this as me being defensive, I just love talking about myself, haha 🙂 Cheers.
      -Pablo D’Stair (writer/director A Public Ransom)

  2. I had earlier seen a negative-but-intriguing review of “A Public Ransom” at TrustMovies, and this post of yours reminded me that I had intended to watch the film, so I sat down and did that yesterday. I liked it very much, and posted a user review at the IMDB (actually the very first user review, although there are 34 external reviews! – no one can fault Mr. D’Stair’s promotional energies). I encourage anyone reading Noirish to give it a try, since you are obviously among the cinematically adventurous by definition. The films that I mention for comparative purposes in my IMDB piece, Travis Mills’ comic neo-noirs “The Big Something” and “The Detective’s Lover,” are also well worth checking out, and can be downloaded at a very reasonable cost through Mills’ Running Wild Films website. (I’ve done the lone IMDB user review on “The Big Something” as well.) Since I expect that Mr. D’Stair is reading this, I am pleased to suggest that in Mr. Mills he might find something of a kindred spirit.

      • Mr. Mills, like Mr. D’Stair, is also a published writer, and in general is one busy guy. He has a third feature out that I haven’t watched yet (“The Men Who Robbed the Bank”), a fourth in post-production, a fifth in pre-production, and a ton of shorts to his credit. He is a stylist, somewhat less minimalist than Mr. D’Stair but still, the affinity between them struck me immediately. I write in my IMDB review of “The Big Something”: “Mills states that he is influenced by Buster Keaton, and by Howard Hawks in his screwball comedy phase, and one can easily spot traces of both. The framing of the action is consistently funny in and of itself (Keaton), and the laugh-out-loud dialogue has a line-by-line quotability (Hawks).” I also called out “the clear bright cinematography (the Arizona sunlight is practically a character), the sprightly use of public domain jazz and blue recordings on the soundtrack, the sparing but pleasant touches of iris-ins and iris-outs and silent-film-style title cards.”

        I made a pledge to myself a while back that I would put more effort into tracking down indie, micro-budget, and DIY content, because the effort that goes into it feeds the soul more than the latest mainstream product (not that I don’t absorb a lot of that too – I do). Mr. Mills’ and Mr. D’Stair’s films are good examples of the sort of interesting work I am encountering. I don’t get the sense that their goal is to land some Hollywood contact; I think that their goal is to continue to produce their own uncompromised material.

        • The Men Who Robbed the Bank

          I noticed this when I checked out the site.

          I meant to mention earlier that D’Stair has a new feature out. If you’re not on top of this, I can dig out the details/link. I haven’t seen it myself yet. (I’m trying to catch up on a whole bunch of foreign noirs/neonoirs/borderline noirs at the moment.)

          If you’re into microbudget indies, you might want to give a glance to Engagement: https://noirencyclopedia.wordpress.com/2014/05/28/engagement-2012/ I found it pretty interesting.

          The best microbudget indie I’ve seen recently, by a long way, is the Finnish offering Anni; my notes on it will be appearing here in a couple months’ time. (Yes, I have a backlog.) You can find the movie on YouTube, placed there by the makers and complete with subtitles.

    • Patrick–I happened to see your IMDB review when I woke this morning (before had to head out all day) and was going to try to get in touch with you. Much obliged for the fantastic and thoughtful write up (I’m actually going to post a link to it with the other reviews on my site). I had never heard of the writer/director you mention, but will check out the films, presently (perhaps to write about them for my film essayist gig). Fell free to drop me a line anytime you’d like at unburiedcomments@gmail.com, as well. Also–again as John mentioned–I do have a second film out, just a week ago, called DOCTOR, LAWYER, INDIAN CHIEF if you’re at all interested (free to view just like Ransom was). The direct link is here: https://vimeo.com/99917594 and there is also a site with the trailers (and eventually reviews etc) at http://www.pdstairfilms.wordpress.com.

      Thank you most sincerely for watching and taking the time to share your thoughts, mate. It means the world to me.

      -Pablo D’Stair

    • I encourage anyone reading Noirish to give it a try, since you are obviously among the cinematically adventurous by definition

      By the way, Patrick, I very much appreciated this remark. As you say, the regular readers here are “cinematically adventurous” or they wouldn’t be here, but there are plenty of visitors who seem puzzled by what the site’s about.

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