Adapted by Brad Smith from his novel of the same name and directed by Leonard Farlinger, "All Hat" is a modest attempt at combining small town drama with a pinch of modern western, which would work if the characters were less numerous and/or more interesting. There's too much going on and none of it excites, and the movie spends nearly half of its 91 minute running time figuring out where to take the story - only to wind up picking the wrong destination.
As our film opens, Ray Dokes (Luke Kirby) is fresh from a two-year jail term and has made his way back to his rural Ontario home and the farm of horse trainer Pete Culpepper (Keith Carradine), an old friend, boss, and something of a surrogate father. There, he runs into old flame Etta (Lisa Ray) and firecracker jockey Chrissie (Rachael Leigh Cook, whose presence leaves me calling the movie "She's All Hat"); Luke enjoys a roll in the hay with the latter while passions still smolder for the former.
Enter Sonny Stanton (Noam Jenkins), the arrogant son of the tycoon who's been buying up land in the town while Ray was locked up. (Because the plot fails to be very original, the baddie wants to turn the land into a golf course. What is this, "One Crazy Summer"?) Sonny's putting the pressure on Etta, who refuses to sell her farm. Meanwhile, a prize thoroughbred has gone missing from the Stantons' stables, creating a tangled web of deceit in every corner of the plot: Sonny, a gambling addict deep in debt, hopes the missing horse can lead to an insurance payoff, while Ray concocts a plan to use the missing horse to outwit Sonny on a racetrack.
The movie has a clean divide between its first half, in which Ray integrates himself back into the small town (with the occasional fight thrown in for fun), and its second, in which the horse goes missing and everyone starts scheming. Both halves are a clutter of half-baked characters and sloppy drama, but at least the pace picks up for the final lap. The first forty-some minutes of the film are longwinded chunks of introduction and exposition that don't create enough of a dramatic kick to keep us interested through Farlinger's lethargic tempo; in trying to create a mood that matches the small town's laidback attitude, the filmmaker loses the viewer.
Both the clumsy direction and the iffy screenplay do a poor job of properly introducing all of the characters, so when the second half arrives, we're still playing catch-up on which crony is which, who's doing what and why, etc. Consider a scene in which Ernie Hudson (playing a farm hand, or trainer, or something) gets whacked on the back of the head with a shovel and is apparently left for dead by one of Sonny's henchmen (or something). It's followed by a scene in which Hudson is awake, bruised and achy but otherwise fine, hanging out with the same henchman, continuing their planning. The audience is stuck mentally backtracking the entire picture, wondering if we missed a scene, or misjudged who was who, or, you know, something.
By the time the finale rolls around, we're supposed to be grinning with the pleasure of being in on the con. But despite the fact that it receives a set-up worthy of "The Sting," what with multiple scams and tricks being placed all at once, the pay-off it short, flat, and not really complete. Instead of getting that "a ha!" moment, we merely get an "oh, OK, um, sure" moment. (The villain's comeuppance fizzles, and the film tacks on a follow-up scene during the closing credits to make up for the initial underwhelming response of the wrapping of his storyline.)
Even the cast barely seems interested - Kirby goes extra-low key and becomes far too apathetic to work as a central character. But why should they get excited about a project as bland and blah as this? There's too little in "All Hat" to earn dramatic thrills, with a screenplay that coasts along on its small-town-drama formula and direction that aims for lethargic in every scene.
Video & Audio
It should be noted that Screen Media sent us a watermarked disc for review, so any comments on video quality may change if final retail product arrives. Fortunately, my best guess is that this review disc is mostly reflective of final product, as opposed to the sort of over-compressed DVD-Rs sent by some studios. If the final product is comparable to my check disc, customers will be treated to a lovely anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer that crisply showcases the film's lush cinematography, notably the rich Ontario autumn landscapes. The image is a little soft, owing perhaps to the film's low budget. Most of the movie's racing sequences and a few quick-pan shots hold up well, with no motion problems.
The 5.1 surround soundtrack is a solid, unassuming mix, delicately handling dialogue and music. The DVD artwork states that optional Spanish subtitles are provided, although those were not included on my disc.
"Behind the Scenes" (5:07) is a collection of EPK-style cast and crew interviews, offering very little in terms of depth or actual making-of information; film clips are used too often to pad the featurettes run time. Presented in a mix of aspect ratios: 1.33:1 for on-set behind-the-scenes footage; 1.78:1 flat letterbox for interviews; and 2.35:1 flat letterbox for film clips.
Six deleted scenes (approx. 9 min. total) add small character details that only clutter up an already overloaded story. Presented in 2.35:1 flat letterbox with time coding.
A somber, meandering tone could work well if story and characters are strong enough to carry the audience through the slow pace. "All Hat" has plenty of slow pace, but no strong story and certainly no strong characters. Skip It.