My second day at SXSW came to a close with a premiere screening of Two Step, an indie thriller/drama and director Alex Johnson’s feature debut. Boy did this film confuse me. Or more accurately, the reaction to this film confused me. The theater went absolutely nuts for this movie, and I did not enjoy it. I enjoyed parts of it; the acting is pretty good (at times very good) and it’s a pretty, atmospheric film that feels absolutely authentic to its Texas setting (trust me, I’m a native). The first 15-20 minutes of the movie set up a really interesting character drama between an orphaned college kid, James, who just lost his grandma (his caretaker after his parents) and strikes up a friendship with the 50-something neighbor, Dot, who lives across the street. That movie exists in the opening act. It exists nowhere else in the movie. So I’ve been trying to figure all that out.
I think the audience was reacting in part to shock value. The movie turns into a thriller of sorts, with focus shifting to the villain, Webb, and his action for the remainder of the film. The shock value comes from a select few points of high violence that are physically brutal (although only partially on-screen) but driven home viscerally by the sound work. Punches have an almost comically loud value in this movie, but there’s no comedy. Gunshots abuse the silence into which they are fired. The audience visibly jumped several times. And because of the beginning of the movie, you do care about the characters upon whom the violence is being wrongfully visited (beyond basic human empathy, I mean).
I had an opportunity to sit down with some of the cast as well as Johnson and the film’s composer, Andrew Kenny, and it was really interesting to compare what they said to how I experienced the final film. Almost everything they talked about was absolutely in the movie, it just didn’t seem to come across quite as clearly or cohesively as expected. Nearly everyone spoke to how two of the main characters, James (Skyy Moore) and Webb (James Landry Hebert) are in many ways the opposites of one another. It definitely informs a humanity that’s brought to Webb, who’s otherwise a categorically awful person. Johnson talked about looking at Webb as an antihero, and said that Dot (Beth Broderick) is essentially what keeps James from becoming that same sort of person in the long run. He said that’s part of why he saw the opening act as key, even though the main narrative he set out to tell was the thriller story. “Webb is James without Dot.” Broderick backed up this notion very strongly. I’m not sure the movie really suggests that, but I can see the balance between the two characters that’s being attempted. I also asked Broderick about Dot’s character arc, given that she’s such a prominent figure early in the film and recedes significantly as the narrative progresses. “We [women my age] don’t have arcs,” she said. “We just are.”