Many films take on socially relevant issues. One such topic close to the top of the film maker’s list is senseless violence. Movies like ‘Straw Dogs’ stirred up a large amount of controversy resulting from the realistic depiction of brutality. What many people with a critical eye often forget about senseless violence is the precise denotation of the word senseless. Movies tackling this topic frequently are derided for failing to delineate the problem properly. I have to wonder just what part of senseless eludes their understanding. This train of thought became a discussion point between me and a friend after watching ‘Five Corners’. The movie is admittedly flawed but in this particular instance the perceived short comings are not the result of s lack of talent among the cast and crew but a method that best serves the themes under the film’s examination. This is a movie primarily concerned with irrational motives explored through the lives of extremely damaged human beings. Presenting a story such as this would be false if presented in a slick, highly polished film. ‘Five Corns is a gritty mélange of dark comedy, suspense and violence that simultaneously presents realism and self parody in an oddly compelling movie. This film is an example of the kind of story telling that is only practical within the independent film world. The main stream studios would not be able to justify a movie like this to the fiscally oriented executives. Made on a shoe string budget in less time than many films allot for rehearsal the movie barely brought in a million dollars; hardly a blip on a studio’s spreadsheets. If it weren’t for movies like this that drive the film festival circuit entertaining stories like this wouldn't get a chance to be seen. This is one reason why independent films have such a following; even if they don’t achieve their full potential at least there was an honest effort to attempt something off the beaten track.
It is always a bit special to see a neighborhood you are familiar with in a flick. As a person who was born and spent most of my life in New York City I get to experience this feeling more than most cinephiles. With ‘Five Corners the events take place in a culturally diverse, working class neighborhood in the Bronx; one I have lived close to for awhile. Even when I resided in other sections of the city I usually wound up in neighborhoods quite similar to the titular one depicted in this movie. This is germane to a consideration of this film because in order to gain any insight into the characters or their motivations you need to have an appreciation for the setting. This is a small set of blocks were people come home to after their jobs and raise their families. It somewhere that violence is out of the ordinary and disturbing. This movie heavily depends on this allowing mostly regular people to react to bizarre situations. Adding to the degree of difficulty this is a period movie set in 1964. The set designers are required to go the extra mile to ensure authenticity and in this case they succeeded quite nicely. There are several rather surreal elements to this production so grounding it with a familiar location and relatable time is necessary to permit the audience to establish a common ground with the characters and grasp the peculiar circumstances. The director, Tony Bill, understands this providing ample plot device to assist the audience. Much of his directorial work has been with quirky television series including ‘Leverage’ and ‘Felicity’. Perhaps some of the visual flair he demonstrates here came from his association with one of the industry’s most visually innovative film makers, J.J. Abrams. Bill also helps to set the stage with musical selections indicative of that time. The opening shot of the movie is accompanied by ‘The Beatles’ "In My Life" following later on with an anthem for that time, The Times They Are A-Changin'", by Bob Dylan. Bill is a man who knows how to construct a film as evident by the Academy Sward he shared for Best Picture in 1974 with ‘The Sting’. The stage is carefully set as the autumn of 1964; a man walks down the street with a sandwich sigh promoting LBJ for president, the neighborhood porches are adorned with jack-o-lanterns as the leaves accumulate on the curbs. Two men are introduced; Heinz (John Turturro) and Harry (Tim Robbins). Heinz is just getting back to the neighborhood after serving time for attempted rape of Linda (Jodie Foster). Harry had intervened back then but since that time had had an epiphany inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King to embrace non-violence. To this end Harry has converted to Buddhism.
The first clue that this film will incorporate some dark comedy comes with the introduction of high school algebra teacher Mr. Glascow (Jery Hewitt). A comical horn deeply toots as he sits at home grading a recent test. He is a grim, lean man with pencils crowding his jacket pocket and a look of distain on his face as he stamps ‘Failed’ in red letters on the sheets of paper. He leaves his home only to be struck dead by a red arrow directly shot squarely in his back. The fact that most of the class failed the test is no surprise. We get to see a pair of boys using firecrackers to vandalize a shop’s sign and two girls, Melanie (Elizabeth Berridge) and Brita (Cathryn de Prume) sniffing glue in the back of another boy’s, Sal (Carl Capotorto), convertible. Sal pays the bright lights with the fire crackers $5 to take the girls off his hands putting in motion a strange set of conditions that permit the story to unfold. The reason the youth of the neighborhood were out loose is their teacher had just been murdered. The story is convoluted, taking a Rube Goldberg approach to storytelling. The events are roughly a 48 hour slice of life in this neighbor where odd events fall in place like so many dominos. The script was provided by John Patrick Shanley who received the Oscar in 1998 for ‘Moonstruck’ and another nomination for ‘Doubt’ in 2009. Both of those screenplays were lauded for how well they depicted life in a working class New York Neighborhood.
The lead actors were already well established in 1987 when this film was made. Each of the principles gives off beat performances that blend touching moments with darkly humorous ones. In one movement the two girls are coming too in a strange location the next Harry’s mother gives a well crafted speech about heroism and how it usually leaves grieving family in its wake. The film is quirky, odd and entertaining as long as you are willing to give it a chance.