Sunday, January 13, 2013

Math Class Redux!

A scalene triangle is one in which all three sides (and therefore, angles) are not the same. Since Scalene is not a movie about triangles, you should keep this in mind.

Quick Plot: We open on some sudden violence as a middle aged woman named Janice Trimble barrels her way into an upper middle class suburban home in a clumsy attempt to gun down a pretty young woman named Paige. Awkward girl fight commence!

We quickly cut to a chronologically earlier scene as Janice purchases her gun, and next, to one where we see why: her mentally impaired son Jakob has been sent to a mental hospital after allegedly attacking Paige, his home aide. Along with these scenes comes some heartbreaking moments as Janice tries to raise the silent Jakob while attempting to start a sweet romance with a bearded nice guy. As the scenes flash backward Memento style, we see that the sad roots of this family's plight. It's heartbreaking.

Or is it heartbreaking for other reasons? After we flow through Janice's past, we're switched to the more surreal point of view of Jakob, who sees the world from shaky, even LESS linear eyes. We only linger there a little while before switching to the (maybe) more straightforward perception of Paige, a sociology major with good intentions who begins to suspect something amiss at the Trimble house. Is she right, and have we been tricked by Janice's point of view? Or is Paige damaged in her own twisted style in a way that, due to her position, nobody (including the audience) will ever have any reason not to trust her instincts and actions? 

Scalene is a difficult film, something I say as a compliment. Much like the even darker Red White & Blue, Scalene is film that challenges its audience and refuses to let them know if they've won. Grounding it all are three fantastic performances in roles that require an awful lot from their actors. Margo Martindale is one of those faces that you've seen in bit parts forever before she finally gained some mainstream fame with an Emmy award for Justified. She's the kind of 'real woman' actress who you always want more of, someone who can steal a scene from Dexter's Michael C. Hall while laying in a hospital bed bemoaning the lack in quality of key lime pie. As Janice, Martindale gets an incredible chance not just as the long-deserved lead, but as a character who acts from three distinctive point of views. It's juicy, and she squeezes it for all its worth.

Equally good is Hannah Hall (young Jenny in Forrest Gump!) in the tricky part of Paige. While it's easy to side against her, Hall plays Paige with an intriguing balance of entitlement and good intentions. As Jakob, Stake Land’s Adam Scarimbolo has to play a brain-damaged young man with little glamour. It works.

Directed by Zach Parker (who co-wrote the script with Brandon Owens), Scalene is bound to be a divisive film. The backwards approach might seem to some to be derivative of Memento, though I found it an effective way to immediately catch you off guard, forcing you to see the sad effects of some choices and putting your pity in a certain place, only to later twist that around with another point of view. Ultimately, the fact that the narratives don’t *quite* add up makes Scalene something deliberately uneasy, a film less about who’s right than who’s who.

High Notes
It’s called ACTING!

Low Notes
The opening scene features an appropriately awkward, even humorous fight scene. While it's an entertaining and ultimately fitting way to start the film, the choice in score--which goes from Hitchcockian suspense to near-circus cues in less than 3 minutes--almost calls too much attention to itself. I think I understand what Parker is trying to do in terms of toying with tone, but upon first viewing, I just found it distracting

Lessons Learned
When it comes to college, blonds only hang out with blonds

Always check the flipbook before ordering pizza

In some states, it’s REAL easy to buy a gun

I hesitate to heartily recommend Scalene, as it's sure to polarize a large chunk of any viewing audience. While virtually everyone will appreciate its key performances, the very nature of its ambiguity is bound to make some viewers flat-out angry. I for one thought Zach Parker's approach was both unique and incredibly powerful, especially when aided by the powerhouse that is Margo Martindale. The pieces don't add up, and while that might indeed be frustrating, it also makes its own point. Scalene is currently streaming on Netflix and makes me an uncomfortable, but fascinating view. Word on the Internet Superhighway says that the DVD includes a few special features, and considering this is a movie that will easily benefit from a rewatch, I just might put it on my shopping list.


  1. I watched this because you mentioned it earlier, and I didn't get Paige's "plan", to be vague about it. She seemed very concerned and wanted to help and then did THAT.

    The faux-Vertigo touches were more unintentionally comical and totally unnecessary. I liked the whole middle as a character piece though.

  2. ACTING!

    Hell yea, this does sound good. Ambiguity is tough to recommend, but when it's done right, it's awesome. Take Shelter comes to mind.

    I'm going to give this one a go within the next couple of weeks.

  3. Thomas: I think she thought that just changing the situation (being vague here) would improve it, since his care was THAT bad in her eyes.

    Sir: I LOVED Take Shelter. One of those movies that somehow got better after I watched it.

    1. I've only seen it once so far. To me, the ending seemed pretty open for interpretation, but people I've talked to seem to be leaning in one direction.

  4. I saw it in the theater last year and would like to revisit it, but it's a complicated film to sit through so casually. I know a lot of people had a problem with the last scene of Take Shelter, which I can understand because it felt a tad too 'THAT'S what was going on.' But it might be a matter of taste. Lately I've been preferring ambiguity (hence my annoyance with the final shot of The Dark Knight Rises, which I think would have been 10x better had we never seen certain faces).