As with all low-to-no-budget independent films, Lawrence Benner’s The Nudger must be judged on something of a sliding scale. It’s absurd, unfair and counterproductive to attempt to look at a $15,000 movie and expect it to measure up to even the most financially-constrained Hollywood production. What’s surprising then with The Nudger is how accomplished it is as filmmaking.
Anyone who has sat — slogged really — his or her way through film-festival entries knows all too well just how unaccomplished much of this sort of filmmaking is. And it’s a situation that’s only been exacerbated by video technology, which allows the filmmaker the ability to indulge in very long takes.
In the days when film was the only viable medium, filmmakers — often working with spring-driven cameras that allowed shots to run no more than 30 seconds or so — were not allowed this extravagance and were forced to adopt a punchier style that relied on the vocabulary of film and editing. Now, the luxury of long takes threatens to turn many of today’s video-film efforts into something more resembling sitcoms than movies.
The Nudger is not one of this breed. Benner and his cinematographer, Dougal Bailey, have approached the digital medium in terms of film. There aren’t more than a couple of scenes that have that droning video production look. The editing is sharp and well judged, and nearly everywhere you look, there are eye-catching compositions, good uses of color and lighting. There’s little about the look of The Nudger that is slapdash — something that’s very refreshing with this kind of work.
As a story, it’s hard not to feel that specters of Robert Altman, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and Roger Avary hovering in the background. Benner’s screenplay aims for the verbal cleverness of Tarantino — and he sometimes succeeds, though it occasionally feels forced.
If I had to describe the film in the simplest possible referential terms, I’d say it has the air of Altman’s Short Cuts, combined with Tarantino-esque quirks (which may be as much Roger Avary quirks), the connectivity theme of Anderson, and the sinister atmosphere of Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
That probably sounds more of a mish-mash than it actually is. However, it would be less than truthful to say that it quite works as a unified whole. The story — essentially focusing on the nudger of the title, Leila (Metta Little), and her ability to go through life nudging people along, out of whatever inactivity holds them — is not always coherent, certainly not cohesive. It’s never frustrating in this regard, but it definitely makes the film tend to wander — sometimes to a point where the characters and their motivations become downright confusing.
In essence, Benner has thrown in everything and the kitchen sink. By the time the film tosses in a zombification ritual, you may be scratching you head. But at the same time, you’ll likely be marveling at the sheer invention of it all. Yes, it frankly has the aura of verging on weirdness-for-weirdness-sake, but it’s rarely dull in the process.
It may also be the first Asheville-shot film I’ve seen that really uses the city’s rich array of locations to good advantage. The city has rarely registered so well … or so strangely. And there’s something apt about that, since we are not exactly a bastion of ordinariness.
All in all, it’s far from a perfect — or even a very good — film. As is to be expected at this level of filmmaking, the performances are uneven. Everyone has good moments — some more than others — but no one is exactly letter perfect. With this type of filmmaking — where the talent is of the volunteer variety — you’re incredibly lucky if your actors show up at all, and if they do, you’re more than fortunate if they haven’t shaved their heads between shoots. (Yes, this is the voice of experience; been there, done that.)
But in the end, The Nudger has so much going for it that it and its cast and crew should be congratulated and supported.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke