Putty Hill is that it is, as they like to call it, bravura filmmaking. Matthew Porterfield's second feature is a plotless chamber drama that does everything in its power to convince you that it's a documentary, except that it doesn't actually want you to think it's a documentary at all, even though almost all of the actors are playing variations of themselves, reciting lines that are a melange of Porterfield's script and their own improvisations. Films that blur the line between fiction and reality are hardly new, nor are films that use documentary form to alter our relationship to their fictitious content. Still, something about Putty Hill feels especially aggressive in that respect; maybe that the film is so grubby, and its documentary nature so pointedly artless - Porterfield (or maybe the documentarian character Porterfield is playing, if there's any meaningful difference) is a constant off-screen presence, prodding at his interview subjects uncertainly - that it feels more like raw footage than a completed movie. Which is, I take it, part of the film's strategy, to create a low-rent, actively unpolished mise en scène that leaves us more open to the characters' feeling and musings and life stories as more realish.
Whatever the case, it's electrifyingly unconventional, and Porterfield surely gets points for being a young independent filmmaker willing to take risks, and that is something worthy of encouragement. Which is not enough reason to consider Putty Hill an unqualified, nor even a qualified success. The fact of the matter is, there's not much other than the bold structural and formalistic gamesmanship that gives the film much of a personality, or reason to exist; and since the formalism does not seem to be play for the sake of it, but in the service of the story and characters, that simply isn't enough.
The film takes place in the run-up to a funeral: it takes a little while to figure out whose, and a little while longer to figure out why he died, but it's not any kind of spoiler for me to say that the deceased is a twentysomething named Cory, who died of a drug overdose - and the exact specifics of how that happened are a matter of a little debate, but that's not at all the point of the movie. The point, instead, is to spend time with his family, and his friends, and his family's friends and his friends' families. If there had to be a main thrust of the movie, it would be how Cory's death has forced a confrontation between his cousin Jenny (Sky Ferreira, the only professional in the cast, according to the notes) and his uncle Spike (Charles Sauers), her father. But even that's not really where Porterfield wants to take the film.
Instead, Putty Hill is a kaleidoscope of how a great many people feel or (more often) don't know what to feel in the wake of a death that affects them personally, but doesn't come as too much of a surprise. Secondarily, it's a snapshot of an interconnected working-class community in repose, with Porterfield and cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier's camera lingering with journalistic interest on the spaces in which this small slice of Baltimore folk go through their lives. On the latter count, at least, Putty Hill is awfully successful: Portferfield's pseudo-documentary approach is exactly the best way to capture these locations with candor and simplicity, and it is uniformly the case that the best parts of the movie are those which stop to observe - and there are several such moments, of which I'm inclined to say that the two best are a lengthy scene during which several of Cory's friends are sitting around in a river, relaxing and enjoying each other's company, and Cory's memorial service, a neatly oddball affair that might easily devolve into obnoxious quirkiness if stripped of Porterfield's laconic non-aesthetic. The casualness with which he films these and similar scenes is by far the film's greatest asset, giving them the aura of a home movie, where the camera is present but not commented on, just part of the atmosphere.
Where Putty Hill falls apart, badly, is when it stops looking and starts talking - when we are put into one-on-one conversations with the characters and their director, or when they get to chatting about their feelings in small groups in front of us. The problem is twofold: for one, there are a hell of lot of characters given a prominent berth, and the film's scant 86-minute running time is altogether insufficient to get to know most of them at all well; which leaves most of them with featured scenes that play out as the same damn thing over and over, with personal variations. "Let me talk about the dead guy, who is dead. Death, death, death. No, I haven't been to a funeral before. One more thing about - guess what! - death." That is, beyond question, a snotty reduction of the script, which does try to dig into the characters a little more than that, but at the end of everything I was not taken by the feeling that I had learned anything at all about how this small segment of blue-collar strivers viewed anything other than loss. A noble enough theme, maybe, but it starts to get repetitive, and it's never all that convincing, thanks to the second part of the twofold problem.
To wit, the acting.This is maybe not the moment for such a rant, but if there's one thing that has threatened to decimate the validity of the American independent film in the last half-decade or so, it's the pernicious and demonstrably untrue idea that non-actors playing "themselves", or at least characters who occupy much the same segment of society that they do, will be convincing at it. I admire the tremendous optimism with which this belief is doggedly pursued in one movie after another, but the results are hardly ever worth it; certainly not here, where most of the cast mumbles their lines stiffly while having no idea what they should be doing with their body or where they should be staring. For all the effort Porterfield sank into making his movie look like a documentary, it's ironic that the emotional truth of his film is undone because his performers couldn't be convincing versions of themselves.
And it points out the lie of the thing: Putty Hill really is, at heart, just another damn American indie with the same played-out bag of tricks: non-professional acting, loose handheld cameras, and dodgy sound recording all meant to signify "this is real and true and not all Hollywood polish", when it serves instead to make the thing seem cheap and amateurish (especially the dodgy sound, which longtime readers will know is my bête noire). Now, Porterfield's ingenious structural choices and the film's exemplary sense of place to a whole lot to redeem Putty Hill from itself, but it's only enough to make the film tolerable; while the director clearly has a for-real great film inside of him, it's a long way from this one.
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