Thursday, November 5, 2009

DVD Review: The Last Lullaby

Jeffrey Goodman’s The Last Lullaby is one of those rare debut films that is so assured in its style that it becomes clearer and clearer as we watch the film unfold that we’re dealing with a major up and coming talent. So rare is it these days to find a thriller that is willing to slow things down – to exist in silence and push aside all the needless noise that clutters modern thrillers. Here is a film that understands the essentials of filmmaking, and why we go to see movies like this. The Last Lullaby is a classic noir existing in a 21st century film – it may not be the most original story (but what noir claims to be wholly original?), but it’s a breath of fresh air; it reminded me of Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film Hard Eight…not in plot, but in how good of a debut film The Last Lullaby is.

The film stars Tom Sizemore as a weary hitman who can’t sleep, and because of his insomnia stumbles upon an opportunity to make some money. Sizemore’s character is simply known as Price, and as he stumbles upon a failed kidnapping he decides to turn the tables and get the ransom for himself. This opening scene immediately shows Goodman’s skills as a director, not to mention the beautiful and subdued score by Ben Lovett (which throughout the film perfectly, and beautifully, conveys the contemplative mood Goodman is going for…think of it in a way you would the score to a Michael Mann film) and the great cinematography by Richard Rutkowski.

After the opening scene we flash forward to find Price “retired”, but of course that is never the case with movies like this, and the events that lead Price to stumbling upon this money lead him further towards getting more and more involved with someone he is supposed to kill. This person is Sarah (Sash Alexander), a librarian in a small town. She’s obviously the key to some big case because the man who hires Price to kill her is, seemingly, a man of great power (I say seemingly because as is the case with these great neo-noirs people aren't who we think they are, and there's always some bigger reveal that helps bring the whole plot in focus). The problem is as Price follows Sarah around to get an idea of how he can kill her and make it look like an accident, he begins to become intrigued by her. At one point outside of a tavern he saves her from her abusive ex-boyfriend; and that’s his in, after that he’s in too deep and cannot bring himself to kill her. This leads to a scene where Sarah and Price share a quiet moment over preparing dinner, but when Sarah leaves the kitchen she is attacked…Price (who obviously hasn’t told her who he is yet) easily disposes of the intruder. It’s from that point that Price and Sarah are in it together, and now romantic interest has given way to protection as Price goes from being paid to kill her to finding out why these people want her dead, and subsequently protecting her and helping her extort more money from these people.

I’ll remain elusive about the plot because half the fun of these noirish thrillers is watching the intricate story unravel. The script by Peter Biegen and Max Allan Collins (who co-wrote Road to Perdition), adapted from Collins’ short story “A Matter of Principal”, doesn’t rely on the clichés of the thriller; rather, it has fun with the conventions and motifs of noir: the weary protagonist, characters who utter succinct phrases that ooze with machismo, the man who gets in too deep, moral ambiguity, seedy toughs, and a twisting plot that doesn’t reveal its full hand until the very end.

What makes this particular noir so special is the way Goodman understands that it’s okay to stay on a shot for more than 10 seconds. In the aforementioned dinner scene some unsure directors would have Price and Sarah sleep together, the attack the catalyst for jumping in bed together; however, Goodman is too smart for that, and wisely just keeps the two characters in a medium two shot…and lets the moment wash over us…the quiet after the storm.

What I also enjoyed was the lack of voice over, another noir trope that works well sometimes (in a campy way), but is pleasantly absent from this film as the lack of narration allows the viewer soak in the quieter moments that are in the film. The moments of quiet and contemplation make The Last Lullaby one of the better thrillers I’ve seen in a long time because it’s evident that its filmmakers were more concerned about character and mood, than violence and a twisting plot that exists solely to throw the viewer off.

The film is a highly effective small town neo-noir in the vein of Blood Simple, Red Rock West, and 2007’s The Lookout; there's even a quick visual nod to John Boorman's noir classic Point Blank (also the way everyone refers to Price by just his last name reminded me of the way people referred to Lee Marvin’s hitman, Carter). The performances are great across the board. Sash Alexander plays the female lead not as hapless damsel, but as a strong-willed woman who knows what she must do and feels morally obligated, despite threats against her life, to the right thing. Sizemore has always been one of my favorite character actors. He’s been more than memorable in his amped-up roles from True Romance to Natural Born Killers; but here he dials it down…a lot, and it’s great to see Sizemore going for something we haven’t seen from him before. His off camera exploits are well documented, and because he’s so good here we never once think of him as Tom Sizemore the character, but we see him simply as Price. There’s also a great, smarmy performance from veteran character actor Bill Smitrovich (it's a performance that is so pitch-perfect and right at home for this kind of movie) as the man who hires Price to kill Sarah.

The look of the film is gorgeous as this isn’t your usual heavy-on-the-shaky-cam indie thriller. But what’s most impressive about The Last Lullaby is the way it holds back from the needless amenities. For example: there’s a great shootout scene that takes place in a field that is intelligent and intense because it relies on natural sound and setting, rather than guns blazing. It’s way more effective and intense than anything found in the countless in-the-moment action scenes from the Bourne films or things like The Transporter.

It’s films like this that get me excited about the fact there are still filmmakers out there who realize that, when making a noir/thriller, subdued and classical film techniques are always going to trump the in-the-moment action style found in most movies containing guns, gangsters, and shootouts. The violence in The Last Lullaby is shocking, not because it’s ultra violent, but because the loudness of gun bursts always breaks the comforts of silence. It's an amazing film that succeeds in evoking the countless good feelings and surprises found in smaller gangster films like In Bruges and the aforementioned The Lookout. On the back of the DVD box Goodman asks “can we make movies slower and quieter and still make them riveting?” He certainly can. This is one of the best surprises of 2009.


  1. Boy Kevin, when you immerse yourself with your incomparable enthusiasm, i must say you are up with teh best of them. This review is proof parcel.

    So here it is:

    "The moments of quiet and contemplation make The Last Lullaby one of the better thrillers I’ve seen in a long time because it’s evident that its filmmakers were more concerned about character and mood, than violence and a twisting plot that exists solely to throw the viewer off."

    The reference points to HARD EIGHT, RED ROCK WEST, THE LOOKOUT, IN BRUGES, BLOOD SIMPLE and even POINT BLANK would intrigue even the most uninitiated.

    Great assessment of the film various components too. I will be looking for this.

  2. Thanks, Sam. I think your readers at Wonders in the Dark would really dig this movie. I hope you get a copy of it real soon.

  3. Kevin,

    great review of what sounds like an interesting well done film. Your enthusiasm shine through.

  4. Thanks, John. Spread the word about this wonderful indie film. I hope you seek it out.