Friends in Strange Places
Not long ago, reporter Chris Lee made a shocking accusation that, upon five seconds of thought, is not actually that shocking. Lee claimed that Marvel Studios intentionally hires filmmakers who are inexperienced in visual effects work.* This is allegedly done to assert a greater level of control over the decisions the directors make during production. It also means that, regardless of who the credited director is, Marvel movies increasingly look alike.
A film directed by Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Spike Lee, or Nancy Myers could only have been made by those directors. Edits, shot choices, even the performance an actor gives all inform the signature of a filmmaker. That’s important for their particular brand, but what happens if their brand gets in the way of intellectual property? Easy – IP squashes it. Why? Because random elements can get in the way of profitability. The end results are films that too often feel like product, as opposed to stories.
I’ve said before that two things can be true at the same time. On the one hand, I still harbor a good amount of affection for the MCU. As far as crowd pleasing entertainment is concerned, they’re the eight-hundred pound gorilla.** On the other hand, more and more I cherish independent films with a vision. If you’re a director, and you tell me a story only you can tell in the way only you can tell it, I’ll run through fire to spread the word about your film. Case in point is Country Gold, a weird-ass comedy that’s slightly about country music that comes from the mind of indie filmmaker Mickey Reece.
Surely you’ve heard of Troyal Brux (Mickey Reece). He’s not just the biggest country musician in the world, he’s nearly the biggest musician in the world. Period. He’s on his way to becoming an honest to God legend. Has he stolen his look from Garth Brooks? Heavens, no! Also, probably yes.
Troyal is in the branding phase of his career, where it’s slightly more important to film a beer ad than it is to create quality music. He’s also in the pompous jackass phase, and he takes it upon himself to be condescending toward the director of the beer commercial, his band, and, hell, his wife and two sons.
There are certain musicians Troyal looks up to, though, and those select few might hold the key to musical immortality. One of them is outlaw country star George Jones (Ben Hall), who sends Troyal an invitation to hang out for a weekend before his departure. What departure? Well, Jones has decided to have himself cryogenically frozen. Before he does, he plans to get liquored up, do more than a few lines, enjoy the company of the ladies, and most importantly, figure out what his legacy is. Troyal, that lucky duck, finds himself stuck in the middle.
From top to bottom, Country Gold is Mickey Reece’s baby. He’s been working in independent cinema for a number of years and seems to have found the sweet spot as a filmmaker, where he’s able to confidently do a lot with a smaller budget. Here, he’s shooting in crisp black and white with minimal locations, but nothing feels cheap. Instead, Reece keeps our attention on characters first and bizarro details second. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not fully in the deep end of David Lynch-style surreality. A few lightly-sprinkled oddities exist for flavor, such as the singing fetus or the electronically modulated voices of Troyal’s sons. Why did Reece make those decisions? They add to the sense of unreality, the feeling that you’re watching a parallel dimension that’s perhaps ten percent weirder than our own.
Reece and John Selvidge wrote the screenplay that’s a quasi-wild ride and a sneakily sophisticated character study. It’s true that there are digressions about George Jones’ time as an FBI informant and an animated segment about how the most offensive thing you can do to a restaurant chef is order your steak well done. Those moments are the icing on the cake, and the cake itself is the relationship between the ambitious and naive Troyal and the burned out Jones. The script firmly establishes the points of view the two men have, then bounces them off each other.
While the cast does decent work, this is essentially a two-hander between Mickey Reece and Ben Hall. As George Jones, Hall has a weary gravitas. He’s playing a guy who’s seen everything, done everything, and gotten arrested for everything else. Whatever drove him as a young man is gone and now, he can’t even stand to hear his own music. It’s a fascinating contrast to Reece’s Troyal, a good natured egotist who’s nowhere near as smart as he needs to be to navigate stardom. Troyal desperately wants to suck up as much wisdom as he can from Jones, and unfortunately, he just cannot stop talking.
There’s something to be said for competently made entertainment, and there’s not a thing in the world wrong with genuinely enjoying the adventures of the Avengers. Go a little deeper and you’ll discover a vast world beyond the MCU, one where filmmakers put everything on the line to tell a story their way. Country Gold is the perfect example of that ethos, and the work that Mickey Reece and his collaborators do makes independent cinema a richer and more interesting place.
*You can read more about the allegations here.
**For the moment, though there are real signs of superhero fatigue with the underperformance of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. I think we’ll know for sure if Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and The Marvels also underperform or outright bomb this year.