Handsomely made period indie weaves mysterious story of revenge and regret.
You have to hand it to writer/director Devon Parks, his feature debut “The Riot Act” is an ambitious project tackled on a low budget. The story, set between 1901 and 1903 is a thriller of sorts about a controlling father and his headstrong daughter. And despite some clumsy narrative choices and awkward performances, Parks succeeds in delivering a period mystery that feels authentically of the time.
When Allye Pearrow (Lauren Sweetser) falls for a married opera singer named Jameison (Brace Harris), her father, the powerful Dr. Willard Pearrow (Brett Cullen), forbids their union. Confronting Jameison, Dr. Pearrow orders the performer to leave town. And as Allye prepares to elope with the singer, Dr. Pearrow shoots the man dead, while wounding his own daughter in the process. Allye escapes onto a train, never to be found.
Years pass, and Dr. Pearrow, the owner of the town’s opera house, decides it’s time to reopen the theater. His theater manager Jack (Travis Joe Dixon) hires the young August (Connor Price) as a foreman to bring the facility back to its former glory. And as part of that process, a traveling vaudeville troupe arrives for a limited engagement.
Led by the odd, but confident, Cyrus Grimes (Micah Hauptman), the eclectic performing group features an assortment of strange acts. One of their members looks familiar to August, who sets out to discover her identity. Meanwhile, the lonely and saddened Dr. Pearrow finds himself haunted by a ghostly apparition wearing clothing similar to those once worn by the late Jameison. Has the murdered singer returned to exact revenge on the doctor? And who is this woman wearing a mask even off-stage? August is bewitched, and he’s not without resources to solve the mystery.
Parks’ script has a lot of moving pieces. His supporting characters prove far more intriguing than the three leads. And as the central thriller elements developed, I wanted more of the stage performances by the traveling vaudeville troupe. Grimes is an entertaining creation that isn’t given enough development. One especially effective routine has the company performing a murder. This play-within-a-play is a clear homage to Shakespeare. However, Parks refuses to go full-Hamlet here, which is frustrating, especially, as the film draws to a conclusion.
Still, the production establishes the period well, and the part of the country, Van Buren, Arkansas, is a type of place we’ve rarely seen on screen. It’s a unique project that’s not without charms. Brett Cullen and Lauren Sweetser make a convincing father/daughter combination, but the contrived circumstances surrounding their parting makes the characterizations awkward and ever-stilted. It’s as if Parks anchors them to a stage, especially, during the film’s opening murder that needed more energy. However, Parks’ deliberate direction does cast the players into a time and place in which events happen more slowly and a murder may have been easier to conceal.
The images are excellent, having been lensed by cinematographer Travis Joiner. And it’s good that the film has a solid score from Kevin Croxton (“Girl in Woods”). This helps Parks deliver a really high-end looking film from a very limited budget. One wonders what the director would do had he saved the money spent on the period production design and made something contemporary.
“The Riot Act” is a different sort of indie, one with virtues to be celebrated.