Monday, July 18, 2016

Deadbeat at Dawn (1988)

Jim Van Bebber subverts expectations with “Deadbeat at Dawn.” It’s ultimately a revenge fable, but it isn’t structured like a common one. It looks as if it’s going to go down the beaten path at the outset, but turns a corner into a dark alleyway. The entire film feels like it takes place in a dark alleyway, basked in the seedy underbelly of a rundown neighborhood. This is an unpleasant film, albeit a well-made one.

Goose (Jim Van Bebber) is looking to leave his gang, the Ravens, in favor of a life of solitude with his squeeze, Christy (Megan Murphy). His cohorts don’t take kindly to this, breaking into his home and brutally murdering Christy. Goose believes the murder was at the hands of their rival gang, the Spiders. Naturally, he seeks vengeance.
Except “Deadbeat at Dawn” isn’t a natural revenge flick. It moves to the beat of its own drum with the rhythm coming across as chaotic and out of tune. You slowly realize this is the point. Bebber isn’t concerned with telling a generic revenge story. He’s more concerned with examining how a lowlife thug copes with loss. Not just loss of his girlfriend, but loss of his life. Without the love of his life or his gang, Goose is directionless. He has nothing left to lose and, as we all know, there’s nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing left to lose.

Goose is a sad sack for the majority of the film, moping around aimlessly for the first half (and understandably so). He has no intentions of hunting down the Spiders, feeling more comfortable wasting away his existence in bars or in his father’s broken home. He goes to the latter first seeking comfort, but gets none from his abusive alcoholic of a father. He’s more concerned over his son replacing his beer and helping him get his fix than comforting him.

The father scenario is a tricky one. On paper, it’s reasonable; necessary even. It exists to show how Goose fell into the wrong crowd, a broken home damaging him emotionally. His father’s PTSD from serving in Vietnam parallels the war Goose engages in on the streets constantly. It even highlights Goose’s desire for compassion, hoping to bond with his father despite knowing that won’t happen. The problem is Bebber directs the father angle too comically. The father’s attitude is too over-the-top, resulting in unintentional laughter at points. Any time the drama and tension from the scenario begins to surface, it’s sunk by the overbearing performance.

This is a problem that plagues “Deadbeat at Dawn,” though it’s thankfully not consistent. While the film is always manic, as are the performances, most of it is complementary to the tone. The gang members can get away with being over the top, as that matches the lunacy of their carnage. Their outlandishness is reigned in via their heinous actions. It’s hard to laugh at them when they’re viciously beating people with bats or mowing enemies down with guns.
Bebber revels in the sleaze and grime. While this can be off-putting for some, it’s not sleazy for the sake of being sleazy. It’s representative of the world created, a languid cesspool riddled with crime and despair. The gangs exist because they have to out of survival. None of the denizens in the rundown neighborhood are given a chance to escape by society. Their Hell is a creation of segregation.

The only reason Goose is able to live out his revenge fantasy is by circumstance. He’s forced back into the gang, no longer the leader but the errand boy. He’s tasked with aiding in a theft, the kind all thugs dream of: the big one that can secure them for life. It’s through this theft that Goose is able to exact his revenge, slowly piecing the puzzle to his girlfriend’s murder along the way. He really only obtains his vengeance out of defense, snapping and turning his hand against his own gang as well as their rivals. And man, is it something! Goose becomes a badass, a one man gang who eliminates his enemies with nunchucks, guns, beheadings, and even ripping a man’s throat out!

“Deadbeat at Dawn” is no doubt a vile film. It’s one that goes too over the top at times, but never loses focus. It’s structured awkwardly, but that’s purposeful. The awkward structure matches the awkward nature of Goose’s life. It’s a disgusting life, resulting in a disgusting film. It’s not always easy to stomach, but it’s satisfying in its execution.

MVT: Jim Van Bebber. He has a tight grasp on the film and the world he created. He has a concise vision, even if the structure says otherwise. The repulsiveness of it all could have easily become too overbearing, but he does a fine job of anchoring it.

Make or Break: Strangely enough, it’s the father scenario. While that may be one of the weakest scenes due to the comical performance, it doesn’t break the film. It represents the path the film is going down, what Bebber is most interested in, and does a lot to develop the character of Goose. The scene works in spite of the comical performance, making the film as opposed to breaking it.

Final Score: 7/10

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