Robert Gaston’s locally produced Flight of the Cardinal (2010) is listed in the IMDb as a “thriller,” and while I’ll accept that classification, it’s hardly your average thriller. It’s more of a character piece—almost a chamber work—driven by a thriller plot. The surprising thing is that it mostly works and works well. All too often with local movies I find I’m not left with much to think about after the fact, but that wasn’t the case with this—a film that becomes more interesting as I think about the implications woven into its story line of a world-class manipulator taking over the main character’s life. Throw in that it’s one of the best photographed and best acted local productions I’ve encountered, and you end up with a small gem of a film.
I actually started watching Flight of the Cardinal without realizing that it qualified as a thriller. Then I noticed that it was being laid out in the manner of one of those mysteries that’s set in some isolated lodge or old dark house where things aren’t as they should be—and where at some point, the cast would end up stranded and cut off from the rest of the world. In that regard, the film might be The Benson Murder Case (1930)—or perhaps more aptly James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932), since that film also explores the secrets of its stranded characters and does so from a not dissimilar gay vantage point.
Interestingly, I’d been told that while Cardinal had a gay character (actually, it has two) at its center, that wasn’t really the point. Seeing the film, I disagree. The fact that Grady Wilson (Ross Beschler) is gay is central to the reason he has ended up where he is. It is also part of the self-justification of Beetle Hobbs (David J. Bonner), with his fundamentalist sense of righteousness for his actions—and the means through which he can get at Grady in the first place. It is, however, not the point of the film’s conflict, which is rather refreshing.
In thriller terms, you may notice elements of many classics—mostly of the theater (though they all have multiple-screen incarnations). There are traces of Kind Lady, Night Must Fall and Gaslight in the film. Whether they are there consciously, I have no idea, but they help to anchor the film in the tradition of the grand thriller format. What’s interesting is the way that Gaston has worked in perfectly reasonable modern elements: cell-phone reception, security cameras, modern psychiatric drugs etc. It’s really quite shrewd in its updating.
It’s not perfect. There are some awkward bits, especially toward the end. But on balance, this is a strong, worthwhile effort—and one of the most impressive home-grown movies I’ve seen.