They say that old habits die hard and when one has been trained to think and approach their job in a certain way, it can be difficult to make a change. Filmmaker Adrian Kays began his career in Hollywood as an assistant editor and then went on to be a trailer editor, having worked on the trailers for such films as The Hulk, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Van Helsing, Red Dragon, and The Interpreter. I can only imagine that during this time, Kays become accustomed to using the footage that he'd been given to put together a coherent preview, while being careful not to give away the ending. However, I fear that this experience hurt Kays on his feature film debut as a writer & director, Stillwater, as the movie really doesn't have an ending.
Stillwater tells the story of Andrew Morrison (Andre Hulse), a 26-year old who has just completed college. He lives in his parent's garage and works in a vintage clothing store. Andrew is in turmoil, as he's recently discovered that he's adopted. Instead of approaching his parents, he enlists the help of an agency to track down his birth-parents. He soon learns that his birth-mother lives in a nearby town. As Andrew begins to explore both his past and his birth-mother's life, long-hidden mysteries start to surface and Andrew realizes that learning the truth about his life may be more jarring than he ever imagined.
Stillwater is a very interesting film which is hampered by a slow opening and an ambiguous ending. The beginning of the film focuses more on visuals than story and less-patient viewers may grow restless. But, once Andrew begins to explore his family history, things definitely pick up. Much of the film reminded me of David Lynch's Blue Velvet, as we have a young man in a small town whose earnest investigation unearths the seedy underbelly of the local landscape. Andrew is constantly mowing his parent's grass and there's a shot where he puts his ear on the grass and I felt that this was a homage to Blue Velvet's famous ear scene. As Andrew's search reveals more and more colorful characters, the an ominous feeling overtakes the film.
So, it's quite unfortunate when things fall apart at the end. After setting up the main story and several subplots, Kays leaves the film very open-ended. To me, this goes beyond a "let the audience decide for themselves what happened" ending, as we've been given just enough information to be flummoxed. Granted, I am the kind of viewer who prefers to have everything wrapped up very nicely, I don't mind an ending which leaves the viewer curious or with a lot to think about later. But, Stillwater simply left me agitated, as I'd invested 90-minutes in a movie only to have none of the questions answered. The movie also suffers from a lack of humor. The story and situations in the film become very bleak at times, and a little levity would have really helped.
While Kays' story-telling talents could have used some tweaking, overall he's made a technically good film with Stillwater. The movie is very nicely shot and Kays has certainly taken advantage of some interesting practical locations in his hometown of Athens, Georgia. He's also assembled a great cast, as Stillwater has some of the best acting that I've ever seen in a home-grown film. The performances are believable and the characters all feel alive. Actually, the only weak link here is the main character, Andrew. He's portrayed as such a sullen and withdrawn character that it's hard to like him. Throughout the film, he goes through many emotionally intense situations, but the viewer may have trouble sympathizing with him.
Stillwater is a nice first effort from Adrian Kays, but he just misses the mark. But, given his experience as an editor and his obvious visual talent, he should be a director to watch in the future.
Stillwater flows onto DVD courtesy of Synapse Films. The film has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is sharp, but it does show a noticeable amount of grain. When viewed on some monitors, this grain becomes somewhat shimmery. However, the colors are very vibrant on this transfer, especially the greens and reds. For the most, the image is well-balanced, but some shots are slightly dark.
The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which was mixed exclusively for this release. The audio is quite good, as the dialogue is always sharp and clear, and there is no evidence of hissing or distortion. The surround sound effects are excellent, as this is one of those rare films where I felt that those responsible for the sound were really paying attention to sound placement. The audio comes from the front and rear channels in a realistic manner and certainly adds to the film. The bass response is good, but it's never overpowering.
The Stillwater DVD contains a few extras. We begin with an audio commentary featuring Adrian Kays, cinematographer Lyn Moncrief, and actor Andrew Hulse. Like the film, this is a very laid-back commentary, to the effect that the speakers are hard to hear at times. The trio discuss the making of the film, most notably the locations and the performances. At times, their talk is vague, but they do give some nice specific info about the challenges of low-budget filmmaking versus the advantages of working in a familiar environment. The other extras on the disc are a biography of Kays, a Photo Gallery, and the Trailer for the film.
The DVD for Stillwater features a cover with a dark background and the image of a skull, but don't be fooled. This isn't a horror film, but more of a southern gothic period piece. The movie represents a nice display of filmmaking, but the story becomes to gossamer in the final act. Watching the movie a second time with the audio commentary, I began to form more concrete ideas about what was happening in the story, but not enough to come away satisfied.