Feature Narrative Reviews

Charlatan (2022) – 3.5 stars

Director: Colin Bowles

Writer: Colin Bowles

Cast: Haley Evans, Colin Bowles, Lari White, Ricky Cortez, Courtney Rikki Green, Adam Mahan Williams

Running time: 48mins

Perhaps the most powerful commentary on the weird contingency of wealth inequality was made by the English poet William Blake in lines from the Auguries of Innocence:

Some are Born to sweet delight

Some are Born to Endless Night

An almost exact late 18th century contemporary of Blake’s, the American scientist and businessperson Robert Fulton, wrote the following on the same subject:

The American Dream of rags to riches is a dream for a reason – it is hard to achieve; were everyone to do it, it wouldn’t be a dream but rather be reality.

The position taken by Blake was one of moral outrage whilst that of Fulton was essentially reactionary – the poor will always be with us. The tyro US indy director, Colin Bowles, uses the Fulton quotation as a lapidary statement in the first frame of their movie Charlatan. In their submission letter, Bowles notes that they wanted to take on a subject “so fresh and so meaningful like wealth inequality”. I was somewhat surprised by their choosing to use the Fulton rags to riches aphorism as the setting for Charlatan is very much inherited wealth – a rich kid left money be their parents, very much the target of Blake’s poetic statement. After viewing the movie, I am still baffled as to what the filmmaker is trying to say about inequality other than it exists in contemporary US society.

Later in the submission, Bowles tells us they wanted, in addition, to explore the nature of right and wrong in relation to their two main characters within a horror setting and, in this endeavour, they are far more successful. Charlatan is the director’s first feature – they have previously directed and acted in a web-based comedy series – and is, despite a few problems, a highly credible debut by Bowles as an indy filmmaker.

The opening scene is set in London where we are introduced to a thirty something couple – Emma (Courtney Rikki Green) and Dave (Adam Mahan Williams). Dave is American and Emma is British. The couple are in their kitchen discussing their impending move to the US. The script (Bowles is writer/director) lays down a marker that they are successful professionals in that they discuss Dave’s earnings for the previous year which were $500,000. I enjoyed the charm with which Green and Williams sketched their characters out and evoked a feeling of easy domesticity

As a Brit reviewer based in the UK, I had some issues with the London setting. The universe is of course incorrigibly various, but would a young professional really be reading any tabloid, let alone the Sun, at the breakfast table? Would the couple really have a giant Union Jack flying outside their kitchen window? Even in the current deranged media-driven frenzy of mourning for a dead royal, Brit young people are not generally as inveterate flag-shaggers as their US counterparts. However, along with the caption London, 2018, I presume the props were intended as easy signposts for a US audience. Matters become distinctly odd when the couple discuss whether Dave’s American accent has changed since he has been living in London. The problem here is, in the part of Emma, Green’s supposedly Brit accent is in fact mid-Atlantic, non-regional American. So, in a supposed dialogue between a Brit and American we have, in fact, two actors speaking American English. By inserting the riff about Dave’s accent into the script, Bowles simply draws our attention to the inadequacy of Green’s attempt at a Brit accent.  

The action moves to the States and we meet the mirror images of Dave and Emma – Mia (Haley Evans) and Connor (Ricky Cortez). The couple have hired a car and are on their way to spend a weekend at Connor’s friend from university’s place. As in the first scene, Bowles efficiently packs a host of information into the script – we learn that Mia has not met the friend, the friend is inordinately rich, the university was Harvard Law School no less, and Mia is ambivalent about the trip. The director is helped by fine performances from Evans and Cortez – indeed the ensemble playing through the movie is excellent. I particular liked the air freshener and dog odour in the hire car routine and Evans facing down everyday sexism at the filling station.

The only element that marred this part of the movie for your reviewer was it contained perhaps the most otiose drone footage I have yet to see in a movie. We have already been shown Mia and Connor driving into the filling station and their interactions there, but we then get an altitude shot that simply shows their car driving away. Where is the added value? I realise that drone photography is becoming almost obligatory for indy filmmakers but – note to the director -audiences have caught on and can spot the cheap thrill of technological determinism. 

A useful tool for a filmmaker working in the horror genre is to develop characters that the audience can identify with thereby establishing a quotidian homely reality that will later be shattered by whatever terrifying forces the filmmaker chooses to introduce. Bowles achieves this effect efficiently in the scenes where we feel that we get to know and understand Emma and Dave and Connor and Mia and their worldview.

Mia and Connor arrive at the friend’s lakeside home. Bowles holds back the re-introduction of Emma and Dave until the turn to terror sequence. We are introduced to the rich kid, Bentley (played by the director) and their wife, Olivia (Lari White). We learn that Bentley’s parents have died leaving the lakeside house, a speedboat and wine cellar to Bentley. Both White and Bowles put in strong performances, Bowles is particularly good as the rich kid, who is certainly creepy. I enjoyed the subtle intimations that things really are not as they seem, as the weekend progresses.

The horror turn, the ensuing action, and resolution come across as credible – helped by some first class editing and cinematography. The action scenes are genuinely exciting. I enjoyed the development of Mia and Bentley as the strong characters in the group and the delineation of the play off between the Good and the Bad.

For your reviewer, the film falls apart somewhat, when Bowles uses a plot device – the spoken confessional – to explain the genesis of the horror to the audience. In the explanatory dialogue, there are too many non sequiturs for it to be believable – it comes across as though the director is trying to squeeze as much information as possible into too short a timeframe. Bowles is not helped by his decision to introduce another hot topic for contemporary America into the mix – the prescription opioid crisis – this simply comes across as gratuitous. Some more careful plotting and possibly adding some more minutes to the film to pull the various strands of the storyline together to get them to cohere would have helped here.

The other aspect of the latter part of the film is that the conspicuous consumption on display is so tacky and puerile. Bowles does a fine job portraying Bentley as a psychopath in the making, but at the same time makes a man who is supposed to be a Harvard Law School graduate come across as a gauche teenager who has been given the keys to their parents’ drinks cupboard. This is, in fact, the case, as Bentley makes frequent cloyingly pretentious references to vintage wines and at one point asks Connor what year’s Scotch whisky he would prefer – rather than the sophisticate imagined by the director, the audience gains the impression that we are dealing with an idiot.

Charlatan is raw round the edges, but there are elements in there that show that the director knows what they are doing. Bowles certainly knows how to assemble a group of actors and to conjure strong performances from them as well as putting together a competent production team. I certainly look forward to their next submission to ILF. My main piece of advice to the director for the future would be rather than taking as your next movie’s theme the latest cause celebre in the mainstream media – try focusing on something that makes you personally angry, sad, or hopeful. And maybe show us the reasons why Some are born to sweet delight…  

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