SXSW Review: Two Step

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Two Step

For decades, law enforcement agencies have been warning people of a common phone scam: An elderly person receives a phone call from someone pretending to be the person's grandchild or other family member. The caller says he's desperate for money, and asks the victim to deposit money in a bank account. This scam is often successful; the elderly victims, feeling lonely and forgotten, want to help their family members and are easily conned.

Normally, the victims lose money but never meet the con artists or suffer any physical harm. But in the stylish thriller Two Step, the scam turns deadly and personal.

In the Austin-made film, career criminal Webb (James Landry Hébert) is part of ring of phone scammers, making his calls from prison. When he's released, he's ready to continue his criminal ways and reunite with his girlfriend and fellow scammer, Amy (Ashley Spillers). But the reunion doesn't go as planned. Fed up with Webb's physical and emotional abuse, Amy leaves him the minute he returns home, taking their ill-gotten cash with her. Even worse, he owes $10,000 to the ringleader, Duane (Jason Douglas), who banishes him from the ring for his erratic and violent ways. But Webb is determined to repay the money and make amends with his boss.

One of Webb's victims is the grandmother of James (Skyy Moore), a young college dropout living in Austin and deciding where life will take him next. When his grandmother dies, James inherits her estate, moves into her home, and helps himself to a substantial amount of cash. (His parents also died recently, leaving their estate to the grandmother and now to him.)

James also befriends his grandmother's neighbor, Dot (Beth Broderick). Although a generation apart and having little in common, the two form a bond. Dot wants to help the young man, now without a family, deal with his grief. And James needs her company -- quiet and shy, he doesn't appear to have any friends.

The two stories converge and the thrills in Two Step begin when James discovers a message from Webb on his grandmother's answering machine. To avoid ruining any of the movie's relentless suspense, I'll say no more.

Austin filmmaker Alex R. Johnson's debut feature is a taut, horrifying piece of crime noir, delivering plenty of bloody chills with an Austin honky-tonk flavor. Thriller fans will find plenty to like, from a creepily psychotic killer to a twisty plot and a cast of very shady supporting characters. There is also great character development; shady or not, the characters are all damned interesting. (Dot is my favorite, an intriguing mix of maternal caregiver, artsy dance teacher and beer-swilling good ol' gal who takes no bullshit from anyone.)

Two Step is the rare Austin indie that exists almost entirely in Austin's underworld, a seedy milieu of crooks, con artists and the constant threat of violence. Everyone's on the take, and trusting someone can be deadly. Even some of the non-underworld good guys aren't very good; Exhibit A is Dot's occasional fling, the two-timing boor Horace (Barry Tubb). Two Step presents all the grift and mayhem with cold, calculating grit, and makes me wish there were more Austin films like it. The sunny and slackery local indies are entertaining, but the River City's fascinating dark side is underrepresented.

Two Step's strongest point is its terrific acting. The cast is surprisingly experienced for an indie filmmaker's first feature, with veteran actors from both Austin and Hollywood. Hébert is the film's standout, delivering a deliciously psychotic performance as Webb, a desperate two-bit criminal with a hair-trigger temper. Webb is a classic noir villain -- a sociopath who can't get control of his own life, so he controls others with violence. Webb's ranting and brutality are scary enough, but he's at his most terrifying when Hébert nails the cold, dead, blank stare of a monster who cares nothing about his victims.

If Webb is the film's most detestable character, Dot is the most likable. This is mostly due to Broderick, who plays Dot as an appealing mix of compassion, sexiness and steely resolve. In her mid-fifties, single, and mostly content with her job as a dance teacher, Dot is a little lonely and slightly weary, but not really unhappy. Men hit on her, but she brushes them off -- especially when they're rude and disrespectful. Dot is a refreshingly strong female character who can find fulfillment on her own.

The rest of the performances are dead-on also, especially Douglas as crime boss Duane and Brady Coleman as James's sympathetic lawyer, Ray. And Two Step wouldn't be an Austin film without local cameos -- look for legendary musician Dale Watson and KUTX show host Laurie Gallardo.

My only criticism of Two Step is the ending, which didn't deliver quite the payoff I had hoped. (Of course, I can't reveal why not.) But the movie is strong in every other way (did I mention the killer soundtrack and terrific cinematography?), and I enthusiastically recommend it. Johnson's first feature is terrific, and his filmmaking talent is obvious. I hope we'll see more great films like Two Step from him in the future.

Austin/Texas connections: Two Step was shot in Austin. Several Texan actors appear in the film, including Ashley Spillers, Barry Tubb and Kathy Rose Center.

Two Step screens again on Friday, March 14 at 4:30 pm at the Topfer Theater at ZACH.