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Producers: Cameron Eldred, Rod Hamilton, Armen Aghaean, Cameron Van Hoy and Justin Smith   Director: Cameron Van Hoy   Screenplay: Cameron Van Hoy   Cast: Daniel Zovatto, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Cathy Moriarty, Buddy Duress, David Proval, Michael Drayer, Tom Segura, Adam Lazarre-White and Steven Bauer   Distributor: Ardor Pictures

Grade: C-

For his first feature as a writer-director, actor Cameron Van Hoy has chosen one of the hoariest film noir plots imaginable—the one about the hit-man who falls in love with a witness to one of his jobs.  At times “Flinch” seems like an unintentionally funny attempt to replicate the old cliché-ridden models, and at others a parody of them.  The fact that you can’t be sure means that in either case, it doesn’t work. 

Joey Doyle (Daniel Zovatto) is the son of Joseph (Steven Bauer), an imprisoned mob killer who still owes a debt to his old boss Lee Vaughn (David Proval), which Joey is now compelled to pay off by following in his father’s footsteps.  His skill is demonstrated early on in a hit on a bevy of thugs in a warehouse, after which Lee’s sleazy son James (Buddy Duress) hands over a new assignment—offing a slimy politico (Tom Segura).  The reasons behind the assignment are never explained. 

Joey, who lives with his over-protective mother Gloria (Cathy Moriarty), hates doing the Vaughns’ bidding, but reluctantly begins to stalk his intended victim, as well as the guy’s assistant Mia Rose (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), to determine when to time the hit.  But the tables are turned in an altercation in the politician’s office building, and Joey nearly dies; even worse, Mia Rose sees him kill her boss, and tries to escape.  He catches her and, rather than shooting her because she doesn’t flinch when threatened with a gun (hence the title), drags her back to his place, tying her to his bed while his mom–and later his father, in Bauer’s only scene—warn him that what he’s doing is dangerous.  Their observations prove prescient.

But Joey, though (or perhaps because) he’s such a momma’s boy (at one point Mia Rose even calls him Norman Bates), falls deeper and deeper for his captive.  Meanwhile James and his cohorts become concerned for a variety of reasons about her disappearance and begin searching for her.  The convoluted truth is revealed in flashbacks as Mia Rose falls into the Vaughns’ hands and Joey determines to rescue her.

Visually the makers do a fairly decent job of approximating a modern film noir look: the production design by Matthew Siltala and Sarah Cole, as well as Kai Saul’s cinematography, opt for a general air of gloom and fatalism, and there’s an attempt to use color to enhance that atmosphere—Joey’s bedroom is bathed in the red glow of a huge neon crucifix on the wall (which also falls over the exotic blue fish Joey keeps in a bowl beside it).  (The Catholic iconography was already glimpsed at the start, when Joey prays in an otherwise empty church as vigil lamps flicker in the foreground.)

All of that feels like a campy joke.  So does Joey’s fascination with the wretched Jane Russell movie “The Outlaw,” scenes from which he watches obsessively on tape or on his phone.  And how can one excuse boss Vaughn identifying himself to a captive as the Big Bad Wolf, or Van Hoy’s decision to employ, not once but twice, the hackneyed device of a villain about to shoot a potential victim sprawled on the floor before him instead being shot by somebody who suddenly shows up out of thin air to save the day?

Add to that much clunky dialogue, the lack of chemistry between bland Zovatto and chilly Cobham-Hervey despite some bedroom scenes designed to steam up the screen, and the brutally broad performance by Moriarty, Duress and many of the other supporting cast, as well as editing by Justin Williams and Sam Bauer that allows for far too many long, languid patches and a score by Miami Nights 1984 that throbs irritatingly throughout, and you’re left with a would-be exercise in style that drowns in melodramatic excess and visual overkill. 

You might be taken aback while watching “Flinch,” but it will probably be in reaction to yet another of its myriad miscalculations. 


Producers: Gigi Graff, Anna Kerrigan, Dylan Sellers and Chris Parker   Director: Anna Kerrigan   Screenplay: Anna Kerrigan   Cast: Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell, Sasha Knight, Ann Dowd, Gary Farmer, Chris Coy, John Reynolds, Bob Stephenson, John Beasley and A.J. Slaght   Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Grade: B

Anna Kerrigan’s film about an estranged couple confronting their pre-teen daughter’s identification as a boy is obviously an example of contemporary cinema’s concern with transgender issues, but while hardly devoid of a message, “Cowboys”  takes the unusual form of an engagingly quirky drama that’s part domestic story and part adventure tale.

The film opens in medias res, as the saying goes, with Troy (Steve Zahn) and Joe (Sasha Knight) in the majestic Montana wilderness, apparently on a father-and-son outing.  The vistas, beautifully shot by J.P. Wakayama Carey and accompanied by the twangs of Gene Back’s western-accented score, are immediately followed by a short scene of Sally (Jillian Bell), coming to Joe’s bedroom in the morning and finding the child gone, the curtain billowing in an open window. 

Cut to the cabin of Robert Spottedbird (Gary Farmer), where Troy stops by to ask if he and Joe can spend the night, saying they’re on a camping trip.  In the morning, Robert discovers that Troy has left his pickup and taken Joe off on a horse instead.  Back at Sally’s house, she’s called in the police, in the person of laid-back Faith (Ann Dowd), to report Joe kidnapped by her father, who suffers from bipolar disorder and has been in trouble with the law before.

A typical child custody case?  Not at all, as is quickly revealed in a flashback to a family barbeque at which Joe, with long blonde hair, is in a dress.  From that point we see, in a succession of scenes set in the present juxtaposed with flashbacks, what has happened since then—Troy reacting sympathetically to Joe’s revelation about gender identification while Sally refuses to accept it, the altercation Troy got into with his brother-in-law Jerry (Clay Coy) after the latter’s son Stevie (A.J. Slaght) taunted Joe (the cause of Troy’s trouble with the law), and Troy’s agreement to take Joe to Canada to begin a new life with him. 

Juxtaposed with these scenes are others showing the pursuit of the duo by the authorities, with Faith representing a quiet voice of reason as more aggressive forces are sent into the field, and the unraveling of Troy’s haphazard plans as he goes off his meds and grows increasingly unstable, leaving Joe more and more doubtful about continuing their journey. 

That might sound as though “Cowboys” was heading toward a downbeat ending, but though there are dark moments, in the end it’s a hopeful story—even insofar as Troy is concerned.  He’s a character that allows Zahn to show off both his lowbrow charm and his ability to segue into near-hysteria.  Bell is cast somewhat against type, but comes through with a nuanced turn and Knight proves the rare child actor capable of holding his own in scenes with such formidable personalities, while Dowd is a deadpan delight as the dedicated but undemonstrative cop; and it’s always good to see Farmer, even though his short stint here is hardly a demanding one.  Lance Mitchell’s production design gives the small-town scenes an authentic look, while Jarrah Gurrie’s editing can’t conceal the jumpiness of the chronological shifts but minimizes their divisive effect.

“Cowboys”—titled after Joe’s interest in cowpoke duds (a hankering for which Sally blames Troy)—deals with a subject that might ordinarily make some people uncomfortable, but treats it so gently that the result is comforting, even rather sweet, and should upset nobody.