Neal Dhand’s ‘Second-Story Man’

Second-Story Man, Neal Dhand’s feature film debut, is a moody drama that, despite pacing problems and a somewhat meandering narrative, unfolds as a thoughtful meditation on morality.

In cold, snowy upstate New York, Arthur Black (Christopher J. Domig) and his girlfriend Valerie Evering (Monique Low) commit petty robberies of small shops and liquor stores with their young daughter Maria Low (Zaira Crystal) in tow. When their attempt to pull off a slightly larger bank heist goes awry, Arthur’s already desperate existence takes a turn for the worse as he begins plotting revenge against Max Rivers (Danny Hoskins), the bank’s security guard whom he blames for the outcome of the failed robbery.

Arthur and Maria move into an apartment in an old multi-family house where Max and his wife Janet (Lindsay Goranson) dwell on the second story along with their daughter Holly (Lea Mancarella). A quirky elderly couple live in the basement floor beneath Arthur, and a mysterious younger couple, seen only in glimpses, occupy an apartment on the ground floor adjacent to Arthur’s. As Arthur continues to obsessively track Max, he tries to hold together his relationship with Maria and slowly establishes a genuine bond with Max’s beleaguered wife Janet. He also begins to hear conversations through the wall of a neighboring couple who appear to be plotting against Max and Janet’s daughter Holly.

The body of the film becomes a contemplation on the nature of what it means to be a “good” person and the impact of the obsession with vengeance. As the story moves toward its ending, the film’s title gains additional layers of meaning.

Unfortunately, after the crisp first act, the plotting becomes more plodding. The film’s pacing is maddeningly glacial at times and the narrative often strays from the main story line in a way that retards the story’s progress toward its bleak conclusion. The film’s middle act desperately needs tightening. The challenge, of course, is determining what to leave in and what to excise.

Director and co-writer Dhand was in attendance at the County Theater in Doylestown, PA for a Q&A following a screening of the film last night. Dhand explained that the film’s distributor plans to make additional edits for the DVD release (scheduled for June 26, 2012). Regrettably, these planned cuts may do more harm than good. According the Dhand, the scenes featuring the elderly husband and wife who live downstairs from Arthur and Maria will be excised from the DVD release. If true, this is unfortunate. The couple is key to the film’s story, and removing their introduction will make an already too-cryptic plot more confusing and likely cause the ending to appear tacked on and arbitrary rather than the inevitable tragedy that it is.

There are other sections of the film that could be more effectively targeted for trimming. Arthur’s tracking of Max is unnecessarily drawn out and could be told more efficiently. Furthermore, the snippets of conversation Arthur overhears through the wall seem too sparsely spread out. These disturbing voices drive the narrative forward in the final act, yet the story veers away from these plot elements for too long. By removing other scenes from the middle section of the film, these key moments would better drive forward the momentum of the narrative.

There’s also a shocking didn’t-see-that-coming moment that plays like a scene from a different film. (Michael Haneke’s Funny Games comes to mind.) Divorced from Haneke’s meta-movie manipulations, however, the scene comes off like a cheap trick. While effective in the moment, it undermines the impact of the eventual resolution of the narrative and would be better relegated to the editing room floor.

The performances in Second-Story Man are all generally strong. Domig is effective in the lead, as is Hoskins in the supporting male role. Lindsay Goranson provides the film’s strongest performance in the key supporting role of Janet. Goranson’s expressions convey Janet’s interior conflicts and imbue the character with a sense of fragile vulnerability. The deepening relationship between Arthur and Janet forms the film’s emotional heart and is sustained by the performances of both actors.

The snowy exteriors function like an additional character in the film, effectively evoking the tale’s sense of loss and emotional isolation. The artful location work in Rochester, New York is brought to life by the first-rate cinematography of Chase Bowman. The evocative score by Eric Zabriskie helps to heighten the mood and move forward much of the otherwise sluggish middle act.

Second-Story Man is an auspicious debut for director, producer, and co-writer Dhand. During the Q&A at the County Theater, Dhand briefly described the next feature he hopes to direct, a mystery tentatively called The Lighthouse about two men who discover a severed foot. The story sounds like a promising follow-up feature if Dhand can repeat the merits of Second-Story Man while gaining more control over the film’s pacing and narrative flow.

The image from Second-Story Man is from a copyrighted film, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the film’s production company and/or distributor and possibly also by any actors appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

8 thoughts on “Neal Dhand’s ‘Second-Story Man’

  1. Kendall,

    Thanks for writing this up. Interesting thoughts on the middle acts and the “didn’t see that coming moment” – I really appreciate hearing an impartial viewer’s opinion. I’m sure you would have loved to see the various rough cuts that we attempted on it.

    Thanks for coming out to the screening, and take care.

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  2. Neal:

    Thanks for the feedback. My concerns about the proposed edits from the distributor notwithstanding, I’m eager to see the final cut of the film when it comes out on DVD. And I’m looking forward to your next feature film. I understand you may be working with Lindsay Goranson again on a future project — which is great news. She gives a standout performance in Second-Story Man.

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  3. Agreed, Kendall – Lindsay’s performance is flawless. I’m working with her (and Chris Domig, incidentally, among some new faces) on a short film in a few weeks. Excited to get back behind the camera.

    Thanks again.

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  4. Can anyone out there tell me what happened in the end? Did someone kidnap Maria and if so, who???? Watched the ending 4 times and still don’t know what happened. What was in the basement and who was Beth (1972-1980) in the picture?

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  5. Janet:

    First, a spoiler alert: Anyone who hasn’t seen the film might want to stop reading and watch Neal Dhand’s Second-Story Man before continuing.

    Second, as I mentioned in the original post, the festival-circuit version of the film I saw is different from the release version (which is what I assume you saw). Although I haven’t seen that version yet, the concern I expressed in my original post that the planned edits “will make an already too-cryptic plot more confusing” may have been proven true.

    To answer your question: Maria was kidnapped by the elderly couple who live in the basement apartment. The conversations Arthur hears through the wall — which he believes to be the younger couple on the first floor plotting to do harm to Max and Janet’s daughter Holly — are actually the couple living one floor down from him, planning to take Maria. Arthur’s obsession with Max and Janet blind him to the threat living beneath him.

    I hope to see the release version of the film soon to compare it with the version I saw several months ago. I may have more to say then.

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  6. Implausible movie with WTF ending (the dvd, part of a 17-movie Echo Bridge Home Entertainment pack, $5 from walmart).

    Little girl in car (Maria) completely clueless as to what robbing mom & dad do for a living? As soon as mommy leaves the car, she’s completely out of Maria’s consciousness? Implausible. Does Neal Dhand have kids? They can always tell when something around them is not quite right. They may not understand why, but they know when something is not quite right. And they always want to find out why. Their worlds are very small. And something not quite right in that small world of theirs looms large to them.

    Bank-robber mom, now dead for a month, supposedly away somewhere doing whatever, can’t call her daughter? No cell phone or telephone anywhere? Maria doesn’t pester Arthur repeatedly to call mom wherever mom is so she can at least talk to her? Maria’s behavior only affected in the slightest by her mom’s absence? Implausible.

    Arthur blows Janet’s brains out shortly after they start having sex? So he only imagined doing that? Even if skillfully handled as a dream sequence (far from that in the dvd movie) why would Arthur even think of doing that? He is portrayed as thoughtful and compassionate, especially through his relationship with Maria. Maybe Arthur originally thought of doing that, a tit-for-tat revenge, kill the bank security guard’s wife. But still think of such long after Maria and Janet’s daughter Holly become play friends, and Janet babysitting Maria on short-notice? Implausible.

    Dhand had to know the movie’s ending would be imcomprehensible because of cutting out the elderly couple in the basement. Trying to figure out what happened to Maria is why I went on the internet to find out what’s what.

    I did enjoy Dhand’s overall premise that things turn out differently no matter starting intentions (as Arthur alluded to, turning out differently). Particularly skillful was how the movie viewer understood what perceived-as-lunatic Arthur was ‘babbling’ about to the younger couple having sex in the unoccupied lower apartment after Arthur broke in on them, and ‘babbling’ about to Max and Janet upstairs. I also enjoyed Dhand’s plodding exploration of Max by Arthur (hanging out in the parking lot, striking up a conversation with Max).

    But the bottom line is if this movie is available stand-alone for purchase or rent as-is with the dvd version, it’s not worth even 99 cents. Though I haven’t seen the film-festival version, doubt much that the excised footage improves the movie. Arthur tracks down Max and Janet, finds out there’s a vacancy in the multi-family house, moves in there with Maria – plausible. But as it turns out there’s a wacked-out elderly couple living there also who end up kidnapping Maria – wow, that stretches the realm of possibility. Dhand is engaging when it comes to story-telling segments of a movie. But maybe it’s for next time when it comes to successfully stringing those segments together for a whole movie. And the big lesson for Dhand is have both short- and long-versions (ie., director’s cut) in mind at the outset.

    Overall, it seems like Dhand’s primary purpose was to portray a couple who robs for a living sympathetically while the security guard who foils their attempted bank robbery is a boozing lout whose family is highly dysfunctional. But to do that, little-girl Maria has to be unbelieveable, and there has to be a wacked-out elderly couple somewhere to finish off the story.

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  7. I think that it’s a complete waste of time. This film is a waste. Absolutely nothing to learn from it. Author was a stick-up artist and he presumably got shot in his leg in the process but lied about a car accident twice. He then put his wife to continue sticking up people with a gun, bringing their(her) young daughter along for the ride on many occasions. Then, claiming that they’re “good people”. Then he sent her to robe a bank by using a gun and telling her to stick it to their heads and demand money. What does he think, this is a toy world with bank guards packing toy guns..??. The mom got shot and killed, or she could of shot someone and kill them. That’s the risks stick up artists take.

    Now Author wants revenge. He wasted time dragging a little black girl through lots of shit to follow the security guard who killed her mom during the foiled bank robbery. He met up with the security guards wife and kids by renting a flat below them, while asking to baby sits the little black girl so that he can follow the security guard to his job and talk shit with him, drink and shot off guns. SMFH. Not being a man and ask not one time, “Why did you killed my wife”, “did you killed her just because you are trigger happy”?

    When he did get a chance to seek the so call revenge that he yearned for, he changes his mind and was so caught up in that shit that a couple saw how vulnerable he was taking care of that little black girl was planning all along to kidnap her. What a complete waste and trashy movie.

    Author should of change his life around and set out to get this little black girl who he caused her mother death an education and dramatically shows his struggles along the way to do so, even if he had to continue doing stick ups or even becomes a beggar. But no. This film showed none of that. In the end it showed him packing his bags and leaving along, without the little black girl. This film is selfish, a waste, reflected no struggles of responsibility for what had happen. It’s just plain stupid.

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