The Riot Act 2019 ****

Brett Cullen’s appearance as Thomas Wayne in Todd Phillips’ much slavered-over Joker is an obvious selling-point for writer/director Devon Parks’s first feature; the talent involved here can hardly be accused on cashing in on a vogue for 1901-set period thrillers. But admirers of The Prestige or The Illusionist may well find something to enjoy in this complex revenge story with supernatural overtones that also makes some cheeky thematic lifts from Hamlet. We start, as a thriller should, with murder most foul; respected doctor William Pearrow (Cullen) rules the roost in an Arkansas town at the turn of the last century, and his disapproval of his daughter’s choice of beau (a lowly opera singer) leads to violence. Two years later, Allye (Lauren Sweetser) has healed her wounds and returns to revenge herself and her lover; the locals assumed that she was dead, and that Pearrow’s actions were motivated by justice. Complicating things is the appearance of a troupe of actors including stage-hand August (Connor Price), who also has a grudge against Pearrow, but who must work with Allye to achieve his goal. Cullen gives a malevolent performance, matched nicely by Sweetser and Price, who manage to stress a vulnerability that makes their task seem difficult. Parks starts and finishes strongly, and the mid-section is absorbing enough to make the mysteries worth unravelling; the vaudevillian setting is fresh and unusual, with real small-town sets ingeniously used, and the emphasis on theatrical trickery adds a certain frisson. The Riot Act has a low budget, but clever ideas that make it worth the effort; inhabiting a darkly similar world to Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight, it’s well worth a look for those seeking a more literary kind of thriller.



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