Below Zero (Justin Thomas Ostensen, 2011)
An hour into Justin Thomas Ostensen’s first fictional feature, Below Zero, I was ready to sing the movie’s praises. It was Edward Furlong’s best work since American History X, the first scene with Michael Berryman was so well-done it gave me shivers, and Ostensen and screenwriter Signe Olynyk, a TV writer working on her first big-screen presentation, were doing a bang-up job at keeping the parallel time structures in hand, keeping fantasy separated from reality without stupid “fuzzy camera” tricks, the works. This is a movie that had every hallmark of “you totally ignored this when it first came out and so I’m going to natter on about it to you endlessly until you sit down and watch it just to shut me up.”
And then… the cliff raced up, and the movie didn’t even attempt to swerve.
Plot: Jack (Furlong), a screenwriter who had one big hit and then suffered a tremendous case of writers’ block, has been sent by his agent to a farm in the middle of nowhere owned by Penny (Kristin Booth, who previously worked with Furlong in Detroit Rock City) and her autistic son, who takes a liking to Jack from the get-go. The goal: Penny will lock Jack in the farm’s meat locker for five days to break his writer’s block. (Jack’s agent has given Penny a few other instructions Jack doesn’t know about, it seems, and they are revealed over the course of the movie, leading to some freaky-yet-hilarious scenes.) Initially, it seems like it’s working; Jack takes some of the things he and Penny experienced on the drive to the farm, conjures up a resident butcher for the farm named Gunnar (Berryman), and writes some really good stuff. And then… smack, there’s the wall. Penny starts dropping in regularly with coffee, and of course she’s written a script she wants Jack to look at, but the old joke turns out to have some legs, as Jack and Penny bounce ideas off one another, and Jack’s script gets back on track. But nothing is ever as easy as it seems…
There is so much to love about this movie. If I could pinpoint the moment where I could say “turn it off here and just imagine the ending”, I’d tell you to do that, because the first hour and change of this movie is well worth your time. This could have been the path to redemption for Edward Furlong’s career that a handful of movies in the past decade tried to be and, ultimately, failed for some reason or other (usually because they suck, viz. Intermedio). For that matter, it could have been Michael Berryman’s highest-profile performance since The Hills Have Eyes. Berryman is a very good actor when someone gives him a script that’s got enough meat on the bone for him to sink his teeth into it, and it shows here better than, perhaps, it ever has; the portions of this film containing Berryman are its best. I won’t go so far as to say he’s the only thing about the movie worth the price of admission—there’s enough good in the rest of the first hour to keep you satisfied even when he’s not on screen—but if you’re used to seeing Berryman in bit parts and schlock like Brutal, prepare to be very pleasantly surprised. If only they hadn’t managed to completely blow the ending. **