We barely recognize them. The fringe dwellers, the ones who live life along the edges of the social structure we struggle so mightily to maintain. They clean our offices. They cook our convenience foods. They plow through a mound of monotonous, meaningless tasks so that we can savor our sense of superiority and entitlement. They begin and end in anonymity, and for the most part, we prefer it that way. And yet art loves to drag out these ‘dregs’ turning them into figures of heroic virtue and stretched stoic nobility.
Not the Campbell Brothers, however. Ohio auteurs Luke and Andy have created a masterful look at service-oriented tedium and lowlife illegitimacy called Cordoba Nights, and with this early morning adventure into the dark underbelly of a Midwestern metropolis, we see the boys responsible for such cult classics as Midnight Skater, Demon Summer, and The Red Skulls finally finding their voice as mainstream moviemakers. Though it may sound a little like a certain video store clerk turned Pulp pioneer every now and again, this is a wonderful slice of seedy substrata that suggests, if anyone can overcome the outsider tag to become a patented indie icon, it’s the Campbell boys.
Former drummer Finn doesn’t mind delivering pizzas. He doesn’t care that most of his customers are lousy tippers or that his boss, the prickly Mickey, gives him crap most of the time. Alone in his car, vinyl LP record player spinning tunes from forgotten eras in his ear, he cruises the small town of Bronston and attempts to avoid his ever-present melancholia. When an attractive girl named Allie asks for a ride uptown, Finn agrees. After all, a little company wouldn’t be too bad, especially with the kind of deliveries he has to make. But he soon learns of his passenger’s unspoken motives. Seems she’s trying to escape the clutches of cruel crime boss Darren, and the thug won’t take her absence lightly. As a matter of fact, he will send out his harried henchmen to capture her and kill whoever helped her out – and that puts Finn right in his gun sights.
Like a trippy tone poem embellished with some equally marvelous 16mm specks, the Campbell Brothers bravura Cordoba Nights is undeniably good. As a matter of fact, it more or less borders on the great. With its intricate narrative wrapped around marginal individuals, and characterization that’s both subtle and sophisticated, the boys have seemingly perfected their lurking quirk perspective. Instead of making jokes for the sake of humor, or adding violence to up the geek factor, the Brothers have mellowed. They have found their groove among the various cinematic references that have long fueled their fascinating film work. Again, the cloud of Tarantino seems prevalent here, but the link may be more tenuous than tired. Since they are mining the same material as their far more famous counterpart, we may simply be seeing a shared interest, not an outright rip.
Certainly QT would never champion a hero as dry as Finn. Played with laconic likeability by Raymond Turturro, we can see the actual wear and tear of a pointless existence written all over our pizza guy’s grubby mug. The Campbells give the slouch several interesting idiosyncrasies – the love of unusual songs, the record player boom box, the sudden speed freak frenzy that comes with breaking the law – but Finn is also a classic slacker. He’s directionless and doesn’t care, driven but only because it beats sitting around without the cash to buy some beer. Ragged and retro, our lead is just open enough to keep us interested, and yet the Campbells fill his storyline with so many secrets that we sense we’d never get to know the real deal.
Allie is supposed to be the contrast, the wild child spirit sent to jar Finn out of his malaise. But as played by longtime Campbell company member Ashleigh Holeman, our fascinating free spirit appears cut from the same aimless cloth. It’s clear she is a user – of people, of favors, of circumstance – and there are times when we wish someone would wipe the beaming smile off her smug face. Cordoba Nights never excuses Allie – it may be the movie’s biggest gamble – but since Finn is so far gone into an insular existence built out of unusual obsessions, the pair seem perfectly in tune. Oddly enough, the movie doesn’t try for a romantic or sexual counterpoint. Together, the duo acts as mutual muses, inspiring the other to take risks, if only for one night.
The rest of the cast is expertly employed, the Brothers bringing out the best in such diverse actors as Duane Whitaker (another link to Tarantino) and Joe Estevez. The Sheen sibling is excellent here, delivering a memorable minor moment as a calzone loving mobster with a special place in his heart for hot food. Elsewhere, the standard Campbell crew comes out to support their sponsors, with Chuck Cieslik and Andrew Mercer as standouts. But the real breakout work done here belongs to the boys themselves. Like this past Spring’s Poison Sweethearts which tried to mimic the standard static grindhouse titillation (and did so marvelously), the cinematography stays completely in character. The Ohio nights are loaded with low tech filmmaker flavor, the gray spots of grain embellishing an already atmospheric natural light look.
Even better, the boys keep the camera moving. This isn’t ‘point and shoot’ camcorder-ing, the kind of unprofessional practice we see from most homemade moviemakers. Here, the lens looks inside and around objects, strapped to the hood of Finn’s car to capture the vehicular movements through a dark and depressing cityscape. Handheld sequences complement purposeful tracking shots, and everything feels planned out and primed for ease of editing. Indeed, everything about Cordoba Nights, except the budget, screams out for inclusion in the IFC/Sundance strain of modern indie moviemaking. If you didn’t know about their previous love of all things gory and zombified, you’d swear Luke and Andy were trying to ride on the genre’s contemporary coattails.
Instead, we wind up with an original vision from a pair of filmmakers who should be branching out into even more meaningful Cineplex fare. While they could conceivably emulate their celluloid heroes for the next few years, hoping that someone recognizes their talent among the DVD din, the truth is, their filmic future is now. Here’s hoping some studio gives the guys a shot at doing something within the system. Only then will we know how far they truly have progressed. For those who’ve loved the lunatic lyricism of such unlikely classics as Demon Summer, Cordoba Nights will seem like a million motion picture light years from such a past. In the case of these clever creators, that’s perfectly all right. Sometimes, it takes a risk to really prove one’s mantle. Thanks to their most recent output, the Campbell Brothers are clearly ready for the big time.