The Riot Act (2019)
The Riot Act opens, auspiciously, with an opera and a murder. Dr. Willard Pearrow (Brett Cullen), a powerful doctor/opera house owner living in a small Southern town sometime around the turn of the century, murders an opera star who has taken up with his daughter, Allye (Lauren Sweetser). Allye’s a witness to the crime and flees, leaving her father to clean up his reputation. Two years later, the nearly defunct opera house gets a new lease on life with the arrival of a travelling vaudeville act, thanks to efforts of the local blacksmith/stage manager August (Connor Price). Dr. Pearrow is skeptical of the act but willing to take the risk, even if the opera house is menaced by a supernatural phantom in a mask who follows him around. Of course, Allye makes up one of the members of the troupe, hell-bent on taking revenge for the murder of her lover.
The Riot Act is attempting quite a lot, and in places, it succeeds. The “phantom” figure is a simple but freaky image and, when used effectively, as in one haunting sequence, quite a terrifying one as well. Conceptually, the film takes on elements of class, gender, and power structures that are tacitly under threat in a post-Civil War, slowly electrifying South. The division between the classes is at times viciously enforced, even if the narrative does somewhat skirt over elements of racism that it introduces and then abandons.
But The Riot Act unfortunately doesn’t work as well as its concept or structure would suggest. The idea is sound – a murderous oligarch of a small town faces the wages of his sins via his wronged daughter and, possibly, a supernatural force. But the narrative telegraphs its message pretty early on and abandons the possibilities of the wandering vaudevillian troupe that sweep into town like the circus of Something Wicked This Way Comes. The narrative isn’t quite certain of itself, sometimes tending toward a supernatural thriller a la Phantom of the Opera, sometimes a tale of vengeance and the sins of the father. Either could work, and even work in tandem, but the disparate elements don’t quite come together here.
Some of this is due to the limited budget that renders the small Southern town a little lacking in scene-setting. Lack of establishing shots and a fundamental failure to create consistent atmosphere means that it’s hard for the audience to ground themselves in the world. Where are we? What’s the location? What, for that matter, is the time period? While some obscurity can be welcome in films like this, there’s little concrete to hold onto, as though we’re meant to infer the period and setting through the few elements of dress and dialogue that serve to establish it.
The performances are generally strong, especially Sweetser as Allye, whose deep-seated desire to punish her father for his crime means that she often acts her own best interests and selfishly sacrifices her other relationships for the chance of vengeance. Cullen’s Dr. Pearrow is an unlikable character with edges of sympathy—he legitimately misses his daughter and mourns for her loss, even as he refuses to interrogate his personal failings and the class privilege that made him into a murderer. The film’s strongest thematic underpinnings come from this element of class and violence—Pearrow acts violently because he can be assured that he will not be punished for something so banal as murdering an opera singer or giving bad medical advice to a blacksmith. He hardly even rates those he hurts as people to be considered, and as such he makes an effective, pathetic monster. The most frightening and well-done moments occur in the final act, as motivations for different characters is laid bare and Pearrow finds himself face to face with his demons.
The Riot Act is an intriguing experiment, and might have been a successful one, perhaps with another editing pass. As it stands, it’s a film in which you can easily spot the seams, holes, and patch jobs. While far from perfect, it deserves some attention at least for Sweetser and writer/director Devon Parks, who does much with little and constructs an interesting, sometimes assured narrative. Not an award-winner, but hardly a failure either.
The Riot Act will be on VOD this October.