In an era of filmmaking dominated by giant ensembles, bloated scripts, and CGI-heavy presentations, it can be refreshing to find a pared-down indie thriller with one set and a limited cast. The desire to stumble on to something that can truly be called Hitchcockian is likely to lead a few theatre goers to The Killing Jar, a low budget flick with a few recognizable faces opening in limited release this weekend. Sadly, writer/director Mark Young's film should serve more as a cautionary tale of how easy it is to fall off the rope of a tightly wound film like this one. The Killing Jar is far from horrible, largely because of one strong central performance and a decent set-up, but it falls flat, coming off more dull and predictable than as thrilling as it could or should have been.
The entirety of The Killing Jar takes place in one off-the-beaten-path diner that will predictably turn into a bloody mess by the time the credits roll. Staffed by sweet waitress Noreen (Amber Benson of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and mouthy cook Jimmy (Danny Trejo), the diner is shutting down on an average summer night with a gawky cop (Lew Temple) and a local regular (Kevin Gage) sitting at the counter and a young couple (Lindsay Axelsson and Talan Torriero) in one of the booths. The first guest to change the course of the evening arrives in the form of businessman Dixon (Harold Perrineau of Lost), a nice guy who makes a quick connection with Noreen and takes a spot in the back booth. The group hears a report on the radio of a brutal slaying of a family on a nearby farm mere moments before the tough-looking Doe (Michael Madsen) enters the scene. Is Doe the killer? After he's accused, all hell breaks loose and the rest of the movie is merely a question of who is the real good guy, bad guy, and who will make it to the end alive.
The set-up for a film like The Killing Jar places a lot on the shoulders of the principle players and the writer/director. It's not that the rest of the crew becomes unnecessary but there's only one set to design, no subplots, and zero supporting characters to distract from what may not be working about the centerpiece of the film. And there are a lot of things about The Killing Jar that simply don't work. For one, Madsen sleepwalks again, delivering a seriously lazy performance that seems barely in tune with what's going on around him. Benson, so great on Buffy, is simply not good here, but she's more let down by a horrendous script that features so much clichéd dialogue that I started to wonder if it wasn't a parody of B-movie thrillers. And the unfolding of the mystery of the script is poorly executed in that Young both telegraphs every twist and turn from miles away and then drags them out to meet the running time. But worst of all is Young’s direction in that he mistakenly thinks tension-building is derived merely from long pauses and drawn-out moments. There's a difference between tense and dull, and The Killing Jar is far more often the latter. There are also some unforgivable plot holes and bizarre editing choices that add an unprofessional sheen to the entire film.
So, why not a complete waste of time? A cameo by Jake Busey in the one scene in the film that truly works and another great piece of work from Harold Perrineau. Perrineau has often been better than the material in which he stars and The Killing Jar is just another example for that section of his resume. There are also a few story elements of The Killing Jar that work and the set-up is old-fashioned in a way that really appeals to me. It's easy to be drawn to a project like this one that promises high reward for low budget and a short shoot, but thrillers that rely on tension-building within a small group of characters are harder to pull off than aspiring filmmakers may have been led to believe. Look no further than The Killing Jar for proof.
Rating: ONE AND A HALF BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: March 19th, 2010
Starring: Michael Madsen, Harold Perineau, Amber Benson, Lew Tample, Kevin Gage, and Danny Trejo
Director: Mark Young
Writer: Mark Young