Justin Eugene Evans' Cold War thriller A Lonely Place for Dying has an impressive resume: It's earned 27 awards at 46 film festivals, and its $250,000 budget delivers more production values than one might expect. Evans, a Milwaukee-area filmmaker, will screen the film at more than 20 theaters nationwide, including Madison's Barrymore Theatre. Unfortunately, his ambition is more thrilling than the first half of his thriller.
The film has many merits, from strong performances to resourceful visual effects, and it affectionately tinkers with the conventions of the espionage genre. Even so, it must recover from a slow start burdened by heavy exposition and clumsy staging.
The plot begins in 1972, with several overly chatty phone calls - a major buzzkill. Listening in, we learn that KGB agent and CIA mole Nikolai (Ross Marquand) needs transportation from Laos to an abandoned Mexican prison so he can leak evidence of American war atrocities to the Washington Post. James Cromwell, in a single appearance as the Post editor, can only offer pensive expressions in a phone booth when he hears the news. In another call, CIA agent Robert Harper (Michael Scovotti) discusses a plan to impersonate the Post courier, retrieve the evidence and terminate Nikolai.
Many details in the calls could remain backstory; we just need to get to the prison. Unfortunately, Nikolai and Robert remain motionless during much of their initial prison confrontation. They seem to move only to attack or run. The physical violence between the two - including a strangely serene torture scene - lacks any genuine threat. One awkward exchange features a weaponless Nikolai simply opening and closing a door until Robert runs out of bullets. Thrillers don't require realism, but the violence should be, well, thrilling.
The drama and action improve when CIA supervisor Greenglass (Michael Wincott) unleashes Robert's former special-ops unit on both men. An uneasy alliance forms between Nikolai and Robert as they devise survival strategies and navigate the prison's hidden passages. This alliance infuses the film with much-needed energy and wit, while the prison's architecture creates suspense. The relationship also fosters an engaging chemistry between the lead actors. Marquand finds the right combination of charm and menace needed to drive Nikolai's cunning and violence, and Wincott brings vulnerability to the dilemma Robert faces in fighting his own men.
Evans says scriptwriting began with Robert Rodriguez's advice to low-budget filmmakers: Build the drama around an interesting location. When he and co-writer Catherine Doughty follow this advice, they deliver appropriately escapist entertainment. When they don't, the exposition becomes one very lonely prison.