GORE IN THE STORE
Directed by Derek Presley.
Starring Jason Douglas, Billy Blair, Paul T. Taylor, Jason Coviello, Ted Ferguson, Dash Melrose.
Thriller/Drama, USA, 127 mins, cert TBC
Released in the UK digitally by Reel2Reel Films on 18th October 2021
Whitetail deer aren’t the only ones that need to be on the lookout for bullets when the hunters become the hunted in writer director Derek Presley’s (SHELTERED, CRONOS) tense southern gothic survival thriller WHITETAIL, which sees a digital release this October.
All taking place over one nightmarish day and night in the inhospitable Texas brushland, WHITETAIL follows a hunting trip consisting of an emotionally distant Stetson wearing cowboy worshipping father Tom (Tom Zembrod), his autistic teenage son Donnie (Dash Melrose) and his nervy brother-in-law Frank (Paul T. Taylor). After the recent traumatic death of Tom’s wife (who was Donnie’s mum and Frank’s sister), the three broken men hope that this hunting trip will help them get away from their troubles and finally allow them start to heal. Unfortunately, things do not go to plan as they soon stumble upon a severely injured criminal in the woods clutching a bag full of stolen money and with two psychopathic associates hot on his tail.
After an arresting opening consisting of a bloodied man stumbling out of a crashed car and disappearing deep into the Texas brush, the film settles into a moody and understated low-key groove. It’s mostly a tense and sombre film, with a sparse score and plenty of foreboding barren vistas, but it does have occasional hints of humour to lighten the mood. There is violence, and some gore, but it doesn’t overdo it and is never gratuitous. It’s definitely a bleak film but not unrelentingly so.
It’s obviously been filmed on a low budget, but the production has certainly made the most of its interesting locations, and so it never feels particularly cheap, and it could hold its own against a lot of bigger budget studio thrillers.
The acting, from a small group of actors that I was previously unfamiliar with, is uniformly solid. The villains, Billy Blair as Jesse Arceniux (who looks like an eviler Fisher Stevens) and Jason Coviello as Rickey Bottoms, especially seem to be having a good time munching on the scenery.
However, one aspect of the film that I was unsure about was the decision to make Donnie autistic. The young actor gives a sensitive enough portrayal, but it did feel like it was just used as a plot point to add further jeopardy to the situation rather than it being entirely necessary or fully explored. I don’t have any personal experience of autism, (and I don’t know what the writer director’s relationship to autism is either), so I would defer to those who do, but in 2021, although not offensive or bad intentioned, it felt like Donnie as an autistic character was lacking. Donnie’s character needed to have been more well-rounded, and his individual story could have been treated with a bit more nuance and purpose, to have prevented his character feeling like a bit of a throwback for onscreen representation.
Although well made for the most part, the film unfortunately is let down by its length and pacing. It’s just over two hours long and, for such a fundamentally simple story, it really could have benefited with losing at least 20 minutes. It’s admittedly never boring but it does occasionally lose its tension and momentum with unnecessarily lengthy scenes filled with pregnant pauses and meaningfully silent looks. There’s a lot of monologuing in static long takes and, in the words of the director’s sur-namesake, it could have done with a little less conversion and a little more action. A more brutal edit would have definitely punched the film up and would have perhaps even earned it an extra star in my rating.
Overall, this is a competently efficient little thriller. It’s nothing that you haven’t seen before, but is an enjoyably tense way to pass the time and I’d be interested to see what the writer director Derek Presley does next, as he certainly has talent, but WHITETAIL isn’t quite as strong as it could perhaps have been.
Reviewed by John Upton.