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.