"All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream".
The above Edgar Allen Poe quote opens A RECKONING in fine style. And then, a male voice asks us to "hold this thought: the last thing to go ... is habit".
The voice belongs to a man (Leslie Simpson) who lives alone in a seemingly deserted town. Speaking of habit, he busies himself each day by keeping to a routine which involves jogging through the barren streets, grooming himself for his job at the local school, exercising rigorously in front of an open fireplace and worrying over his dental health.
"Good morning, class!" he booms as we join him in ĎAct 1í taking a class for a double helping of maths. He addresses the pupils with gusto, injecting life into his sermons in the hope of capturing the imagination of anyone listening, and giving feedback on homework assignments.
Thereís just one catch ... the students in this school are all lifeless objects made of straw. No matter, the man continues to teach the kids day-in day-out regardless. Outside the school, fellow effigies hang from surrounding trees.
In the staff room, the man sits for his lunch Ė a tin of mackerel ("again") Ė and shoots the breeze with his teacher colleagues. These, too, are scarecrows adorned in full clothing.
"What I wouldnít give" the man confides through his narration as he embarks on yet another lonely day churning over the same old routine, "for another human voice". With this isolation, gradually, comes a deep sense of paranoia. Who threw the ball of paper at teacher in class? Where did the noise in the night come from? "Thoughts are like parasites ... they stick" groans the manís narration as he bathes in his empty, run-down abode, growing increasingly wary of whatever may lurk in the shadows.
Eventually, come the darkness and cold of the winter, the unnamed man leaves his home and ventures into the woods to set up camp there. He builds more friends from straw to replace the ones he recalls from a previous time.
Shortly afterwards, back at what used to be home, he has an epiphany: itís time to let go of the past and move on, find out whatís out there beyond the horizon. He doesnít get far before routine has him back where he started. But one thing does change ... the past begins to become clearer, in the form of visions of loved ones of old, and a most unexpected arrival on the scene ...
Visually sumptuous and boasting an intriguing premise from the get-go, A RECKONING is an acutely considered piece of low budget filmmaking (the reported budget was £15,000.00) that aims for atmosphere in favour of more obvious shocks.
Shot in Middlesbrough and Nottingham, the film has no right to look half as good as it does. But itís often beautiful, and at times just as moving to match.
Simpson is brilliant in a difficult role that carries the film, fusing energy and warmth into an altogether believable whole. You feel for him; you want a resolution to be had to his predicament; you fear for his physical and mental well-being. He injects humour into the most unlikely scenes Ė ranting schoolmaster clichťs such as "Iím all for give and take", "Thatís enough! Iíve had it up to here!", "What do you find so funny?" and "Iíll ask you one more time ..." while berating his unruly classroom Ė and masters sorrow in an unforced manner during the quieter moments. Itís no small feat carrying a film dramatically by yourself and Simpson pulls it off with casual-seeming ease.
The isolated despair and routine of the main character brought to mind COMBAT SHOCK, especially in the early scenes of him wondering alone through the world while deteriorating before his own eyes. Once his psychological state joined in the decline, there were moments that also recalled CLEAN, SHAVEN. Factor in elements of TAXI DRIVER (the main characterís obsession with fitness, while simultaneously self-destructing) and THE VANGUARD (another post-Millennial British effort with very little social interaction in its first half), and you have a film that draws comparisons with some very strong predecessors. To its credit, A RECKONING retains an identity of its own even when nodding towards these great movies.
But for all the beautiful photography and attractive compositions, for all that the creepy prťcis keeps its viewer yearning for more information (complete with subtle clues pointing to an unspoken past Ė photographs on a wall; a fleeting comment on friends no longer there; the nature of the prayers recited throughout, etc), A RECKONING does unfortunately outstay its welcome at 100 minutes in length. This is virtually the only criticism I can level at this otherwise quietly compelling film.
Even so, youíll want to stick with it to see how it all winds up. A RECKONING is never less than engaging. And, beyond Simpsonís powerhouse performance and the striking visuals, there is something more at play here: a keen sense of deliberately measured pace that builds almost insidiously towards an oddly touching finale.
Not wishing to put anyone off watching this wholly worthwhile film, I reckon itíll be those who are parents who will ultimately take the most from it.
This screener disc presented the film in its original widescreen aspect ratio with English 2.0 audio. Both were very good for such a low budget film.
Colours were vibrant and rich, detail was good and blacks were strong throughout.
Audio-wise, the playback here was a little muffled at times but generally good considering the limitations of the shoot.
While Iím not aware of any official release as of yet for writer-director-producer-composer Andy Barkerís A RECKONING, I can only recommend it heartily as a film to look out for in the future. Itís another impressive British genre effort, and a highly intelligent, emotionally potent one at that.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Directed by A.D. Barker|