Reviews Short Narrative

A Deadly Charter (2020) – 0.5 stars

Director: Hank Slaughter

Writer: Hank Slaughter

Cast: Jeff Weber, Nick W Nicholson, Kara Rainer, George Welder, Jeffrey Colangelo

Running time:  32mins

At Indy Film Library, we try and tease out when things go wrong in a film and provide advice on how filmmakers might improve and build on anything they have achieved. In the case of A Deadly Charter, it is hard to offer any advice beyond “do not make another film.” That might sound harsh, but in all honestly it is seldom that you will come across a film that is so uniformly atrocious in almost every facet of production.

Hank Slaughter’s haphazard directorial debut begins with what I first took to be a parody of 70s oil and sex TV soap Dallas. The opening sequence consists of drone footage depicting a cityscape of desultory skyscrapers, presumably symbolic of money and power, rising from scrubland (and later in the movie the car license plates do indeed reveal we are in Texas). The camera pans in on a new suspension bridge – possibly a source of civic pride – but the obvious real focus is the line of snaggle-toothed office blocks. Ironically, the construction of the shot means this apparent centre of the universe is continually upstaged by quotidian warehouse boxes in the foreground – conspiring to offer us one of the dreariest city views anywhere in cinema. This horrible spectacle is accompanied by a vapid, deeply irritating, jaunty, lounge bar jazz score. Somehow, from this point, the film still manages to find room to go downhill.

As two women stand exchanging idle chit-chat outside an apartment complex, a human body hurtles past them and hits the ground. A shot from above shows the body of a female sprawled on the ground, leaking ketchup from a headwound – a lifeless rag doll on the concrete. Incongruously, the camera then tracks up the height of a tall apartment block in the middle distance. Bizarrely and somewhat repellently the soundtrack intrudes with a saccharine chorus: Why do I have to leave you baby.

In the fallout of the apparent suicide, two brief scene setters foreground our main characters, as the police inform the relatives, two male cousins, Dale, and Morgan, of the victim’s demise. We learn that both are different species of the same horrendous genus; the Bad Man Child. Morgan, a squashed Dennis Quaid played by Nick W Nicholson, swigs from a hip flask behind the wheel of his luxury automobile while placing inept bets over the phone. Dale (Jeff Weber) meanwhile is apparently God’s gift to women, and is disturbed with his gut spilling over his jeans playing Strip Pool with a woman WHO IS NOT HIS PARTNER. Scandalous.

In the UK, we have a successful novelist, former jailbird Jeffrey Archer, who famously writes books for people who do not particularly like reading and therefore makes comprehension of the plot not too taxing. Slaughter’s on-the-nose script makes it appear that he modelled his approach on Archer, or his American equivalent. The lack of nuance continues as, having been established in the most ham-fisted way possible as a pair of bad eggs, Dale and Morgan attend a meeting with their dead cousin’s lawyer.

The meeting with the lawyer is an achingly simple plot device, where the mechanics of the narrative are clearly laid out for even the most inattentive viewer to follow. We discover that Dale, Morgan, and their recently deceased cousin are the wealthy beneficiaries of a trust fund which owns a big private company. There is much superfluous fluff to show that the writer has done some research on finance and company law, but the nub of the matter is in the company’s founding document, the titular Deadly Charter. Monica, the lawyer, reasonably competently played by Kara Rainer (who may or may not have been channelling her frustrations with the script into her performance wrangling the warring man-babies) informs our two Bad Boys that the charter stipulates that if within 90 days of the death of one of the three beneficiaries, a further one should shuffle off this mortal coil, the surviving beneficiary will have control of the entire company.

The Bad Boys exchange significant glances at each other. Logically enough, in this film’s moral universe, they both proceed quickly to engage hit men to kill their rival. Despite being demonstrably incompetent, they manage not hire the same hit man (though that might have been markedly more entertaining).

Then we have the twist. Spoilers ahead – if you really intend on putting yourself through this on Amazon Prime. We cut to the hospital (a broom cupboard in a building Slaughter had free access to) and discover that the pathologist is troubled by an error in the medical records of the dead cousin – the blood group does not match. He inexplicably behaves as though this must be some kind of routine mix-up, and determines to ask no further questions. For those of us who aren’t about to be struck off for medical negligence, however, this is an obvious red-flag. The corpse’s blood does not match its alleged identity!

This scene, which stands alone, occurs 11 minutes into a film lasting 32 minutes, and the audience has been handed the ending on a plate. One would have to be off one’s face on fentanyl not to work out from this monumental signpost that the ‘suicide’ had been staged, the cousin was in reality alive and had used the Charter to incite Dale and Morgan to rid the world of each other. So it goes… The only detail your reviewer did not predict at this point was that it turns out that the cousin and the lawyer are in cahoots and possibly in a relationship. See guys – the girls are as morally defective as us – just a bit smarter.

The remaining two-thirds of the film are taken up with Dale and Morgan’s hiring of the hit men and with doomed attempts, given Weber’s and Nicholson’s acting abilities, to flesh out their characters. Thankfully, for the viewer, the hit men complete their respective tasks quickly and efficiently – and the end credits bring salvation.

A Deadly Charter is given a thin veneer of credibility by the worker-like, if unimaginative, cinematography from Tyler J Case who should emerge relatively unscathed from the debacle – one can only shoot what one has been asked to. At the same time, the lighting of two scenes – one at a seedy bar and the other the assassination of one of the cousins – are positively professional! That aside, there are so many things that go wrong, I will just highlight the most egregious.

Most notably; the amount of money apparently on the table is woefully out-of-whack with the world these people inhabit. Possibly because of a Texan taste for hyperbole, instead of sensibly portraying the cousins’ bizarrely named company DenFab as a local player, Slaughter lets us know that it is the ‘biggest private company’ in America. Having disposed of Morgan, Dale will be the ‘richest man in the country.’ This raises the disjunct with reality from the merely ludicrous to the positively deranged.

Dale, who has not shown any desire to be a Sage of Omaha man of the people, apparently chooses to dress in department store casual and retains the services of a $50 hairdresser. There are none of the appurtenances of money and power: no bodyguards, no entourage… nothing. The film’s budget does stretch to a Mercedes car with the license plate: ‘DALE 1” and a factotum for Dale, naturally called Henry, and naturally speaking with an effete English accent. The props department also manages to provide Morgan with a Jaguar car to drive to meet the hit man he has retained, but considering this car would not turn heads even in my provincial city in the UK, the way in which the hit man swoons over the ‘exotic beauty’ of the car is embarrassing. This peaks when, as he is leaving, the hit man lasciviously runs his hand across the fender of the vehicle, as though it was the flesh of a sex object. A priceless moment.

Then of course, there is the acting. Dale begins to take centre stage as the film grinds relentlessly on – and we are dragged kicking and screaming with him despite him having all the charisma of a boiled Mark Wahlberg. Robert Mitchum famously quipped that he did not act, he just pointed his suit at people – Weber struggles even to do that. There are some classic scenes – the argument with his girlfriend in the restaurant, the meeting with the hitman, trapped in the car by the opposing hit man and coming to the realisation that he is about to die – all yielding at most irritated confusion from Weber, and becoming pure unintended comedy gold as a result. The man has the range and emotional intelligence of a tent peg.

Finally, inescapably, we have the music. Specially written for the film by Bruce McKenzie, this consists of a relentless barrage of the type of meaningless meanderings that have so often given the genre of jazz a bad name. The effect of the endless muzak is as the feeling that instead of watching a ‘thriller,’ one is trapped for half an hour at a supermarket checkout. If it were up to me, McKenzie would be on trial at the Hague for crimes against music. However, here he is rewarded with a walk-on cameo. A waitress in restaurant even says to the great man: Hey, Bruce, great gig!

There is a clear and present danger that A Deadly Charter will become a cult classic – a must see example of bad cinema. However, the film’s values and ideology, its fetishisation of commodities and celebration of amorality, even though they are ludicrously expressed, are so repulsive that it would surely be better for us all if it were to be simply forgotten. I think it says a lot about Trumpian America – but this work is evidently not competent enough for that to have been intentional.

2 comments

  1. I’m just an old stuntman trying to branch out into other aspects of film-making. It’s a learning process so I thank you for your perspective.

Leave a Reply to Jack Brindelli Cancel reply

%d bloggers like this: