0 reasons to stay alive.
This is the setup for Erik Kristopher Myers' Roulette, a compelling indie feature that skilfully builds dramatic tension before paying off in devastating fashion. Folks who watch it will likely be left shaken by the climax and that's sort of the point. When dealing with damaged individuals you can hardly be guaranteed a happy ending.
The film has three central characters, Dean (Mike Baldwin), Richie (Will Haza) and Sunny (Ali Lukowski). Dean is a landscaper who recently got engaged to the love of his life, Zoe (Michelle Murad). What should have been the beginning of the happiest time in his life is thrown into disarray when he starts experiencing symptoms for a mysterious debilitating disease that the doctors can't diagnose. Richie is a corporate type who feels that his life has stalled after being passed over for a promotion. Not helping matters is the slow disintegration of his marriage with his wife, Anna (Taylor Lee Hitaffer). Sunny is a god-fearing young woman who goes through a sexual awakening when she meets the charming Leon (Jan-David Soutar). When she gets pregnant out of wedlock, she begins to question the very core of her beliefs.
At the outset, the only thing our trio seems to have in common is that they all attend the same support group. Unable to find fulfillment within the group, they decide one fateful night to end things once and for all. This means a lot of heavy drinking followed by a terrifying game of Russian roulette. Of course, nothing is as it seems and the three of them have deeper connections than are immediately apparent. They share their stories in fits and bursts with plenty of flashbacks showing us how they got to this point. By the time, they realize the impact they've had on each other's lives, it might be too late for them to escape the lethal conclusion of the game they've been playing.
There are elements of a thriller to be found in Roulette but this is primarily a character-driven dramatic piece. Building three strong narrative strands is tough enough but to then tie them together in unexpected ways is the true feat. Erik Kristopher Myers, working from his own screenplay, is largely successful with the challenge that he sets for himself. Dean and Sunny's storylines are gripping from start to finish, the former thriving on mystery and the latter resembling a Greek tragedy. Only Richie's story didn't captivate me at first. This may have been due to a perceived weakness in Will Haza's performance (a bit loud and one-note in the early scenes) or the fact that his problems (alcoholism and ennui) didn't carry the same weight as those faced by Dean and Sunny. As Haza settled in to his performance, I grew to see the value of Richie's tale to the overall piece. For me it is still the weakest of the three strands but it certainly merges with the other two in convincing fashion.
I spoke of the mystery in Dean's story which may have been the most satisfying overall. The sheer strangeness of what his body is going through and the resulting impact on his relationship with Zoe gives the character a dark intensity that Mike Baldwin bites into with relish. By comparison, Sunny's tale is a slow-grower but it is anchored by Ali Lukowski's completely engrossing performance (nervous mannerisms and all). Following her tale to its natural conclusion (heavily foreshadowed by what she reveals of her own past) will be a trying experience for many (one that I'd hate to spoil here). I will say that it gives Myers an opportunity to play with the idea of just how much has to be shown before the human brain fills in all the ugly blanks. The sound design of the pivotal scene (you'll know it when you see it) is sickening enough before you toss in the carefully blocked off visuals.
While Baldwin, Haza and Lukowski carry the film, the supporting cast does a fine job of carrying them. Michelle Murad gives Baldwin an energetic foil to play off as his character descends into depression. Similarly, Jan-David Soutar turns Leon into a complex character in just a few scenes. Leon seems charming until his first sexual encounter with Sunny where consent takes on uneasy undertones of submission. Just as our lead trio go through twists and turns, so do the supporting characters, frequently changing our opinions of them before the end credits roll.
The film keeps us on our toes and Myers deserves a lot of credit for this. His dialogue may range from sharp to overwrought but the overarching plot is consistently surprising. He crystallizes themes and motifs even when things turn dark and nihilistic. His visual approach is also an asset. The ways certain key reveals are handled speak to a deeper understanding of how cinema is such a visual medium. The film could certainly use a tighter edit (less is more and all that jazz) but as it stands, I believe it encapsulates Myers' intent quite nicely. Given its independent roots, it's no surprise that the film was made on a relatively tiny budget but Myers and his crew have accomplished a lot with very little. This is sometimes a hard film to watch but it's an even harder film to ignore.
The image is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. True to its low-budget roots, the film has a somewhat flat digital look. Many of the darker shots are grainy with mediocre shadow detail and crushed blacks. Skin tones are often natural but sometimes take on a harsher look (depending on the lighting of the scene). Colors have plenty of pop. The image could certainly be cleaner but it is perfectly watchable as it is.
The Dolby Digital audio mix is fairly clear. Dialogue is sometimes mixed low and at inconsistent levels between scenes. With that said, the sparse mix does a good job capturing the film's mounting tension. Every click and whirl of the revolver's barrel comes through with ominous effect.
The only extra is a Trailer (2:45).
Roulette is not a perfect film. Fortunately, a film doesn't need to be perfect in order to be powerful. That is precisely what writer / director Erik Kristopher Myers has delivered here. The idea of overlapping stories influencing each other in unexpected ways has been done before but that doesn't diminish every time it is done well. Myers has a capable cast and a clever story that delivers surprise after surprise before culminating in a gut-wrenching finale. There are shortcomings to be sure but the positives far outweigh them giving us a fierce little independent film that punches way above its weight class. Highly Recommended.