“Trial by Self” might not fit comfortably into the horror genre. It doesn’t really fit into any genre very comfortably. It was obviously influenced by horror and thriller films and works as a psychological thriller of sorts. Its horror moments are pretty tame, but this seems to be a movie with other goals. It is a film that will most likely aggravate many people. Even with its flaws, the filmmaker responsible shows himself to be an interesting future voice in film. The director, Brandon Allen Powell, makes the most of his limited resources and has a style that reminds one of the French New Wave.
The film seems to be presented as a character’s stream of consciousness. It is divided into chapters and presents voice-overs that allow us to better understand the somewhat self absorbed nature of Tony and are never relied on to advance the story or to fill in the holes in the narrative. They exist only to allow us into the narcissistic thoughts of the lead character. We are constantly in the characters head. The story is filtered through it, even when he isn’t in a scene. The film’s claustrophobic style is also of note. The audience always feels boxed into the room with the characters. There is a voyeuristic quality to the camera work. Our view is very often obstructed by another character or some object in the frame. One gets the feeling that there is always some sort of barrier between the characters. There is a cinema vérité quality to the camerawork but one feels at most times that the setups aren’t accidental. They usually have a point to make and they usually make them.
There is an early scene that makes use of dark comedy effectively. It is somewhat unusually shot, but it is interesting how the director put things together. Several characters are gathered at the house of Tony, while his wife is trying to entertain, despite the fact that her husband is obviously uninterested in the guests and the conversation. The interesting thing is that the humorous dialogue plays against what is happening dramatically in the scene. The scene obviously has some expeditionary functions but these are second to the wordless drama between a husband and wife (Tony and Keri) and the awkwardness of the situation while company is present. We really do learn a lot about these two characters in very little screen time. In some cases, the director makes use of subjective editing, which he seems to have a natural command of; especially for a first film. One case in point is a scene in which Tony is alone with his grief and torturing himself. He seems to slowly drift into madness, with the help of alcohol, before deciding to take vengeance on the killer.
The scene is several minutes long and makes great use of the limited resources the director had available to him. There is only one actor in the scene but the scene is shot using subjective montage and it is very effective. As a matter of fact, many of the best moments of the film seem to be when it is given to subjective montage. The acting in the film is a mixed bag, as is the case for most no-budget indie first films. James Byron Houser does a pretty good job portraying Tony. He rarely goes over the top and is a pretty subtle actor for the most part. There is a scene with Amanda Branham as his daughter, Sarah that isn’t perfectly acted but one wonders if it wasn’t the deficiencies in the actress’s performance that threw him off. Cat Angle as Keri is usually decent in her role and sometimes quite effective as Keri. She does have moments in scenes that are less than convincing but they are the exceptions and not the rule. The trouble seems to be with the smaller roles; the worst of the lot being Nicole McKenzie as one of the detectives. Luckily, she is only in a few scenes and says very little.
That said; this is a forgivable flaw considering that this was shot in a small town I have never heard of in the middle of Texas, where there aren’t many people at all and one doubts that the pool of talent in the area is a very deep one. The ending is effective dramatically. It has very little dialogue but one knows exactly what is going on in the minds of all three of the main characters. It was directed with skill and feels like a neorealist film. I like it very much. I might also point out that all three actors did excellent jobs in it. The problem is that as an ending, it might make some people feel like they were cheated. That isn’t to say that the movie cheats. From the very first moments of the movie it tells you what is going on. It is just that it leaves many things unanswered. This seems to not be a flaw at all but quite intentional. The final shot of the movie even calls attention to the fact that there is much that hasn’t been answered. I actually think one of the strengths of the movie is that no attempt was made to tie every single thing up in a pretty ribbon.
This will never be a mainstream film but it is a film that deserves attention, if only to shine light on a creative personality that given the opportunity could be a force to reckon with in cinema. It is exactly the sort of film that should be shown at festivals and there should be festivals that are geared towards programming films like this. Unfortunately, few festivals do.
This sort of film isn’t the obvious choice. I suggest anyone who likes unusual cinema to check this movie out.
Post submitted by Brian F.