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MOB LAND

Producers: Corey Large and Bernie Gewissler   Director: Nicholas Maggio   Screenplay: Nicholas Maggio   Cast: Shiloh Fernandez, Stephen Dorff, Ashley Benson, Timothy V. Murphy, Kevin Dillon, John Travolta, Tia Dimartino, Robert Miano, Debra Nelson, Emily Tremaine, Jesse Sharp, Tommy Kendrick, Cal Johnson, King Orba, James Logan and Rob Mars   Distributor: Saban Films

Grade: C-

Every film needs an editor: in the case of this one, it’s Bryan Gaynor, whose IMDB profile lists more than forty past projects on which he’s worked since 2007.  He does a perfectly professional job, cutting the pieces of film together pretty smoothly, even if the overall pacing, apart from one hectic heist sequence, is awfully languid.

But many films really need a second editor—especially one like this, the product of a first-time director working from his own first script.  That editor would surely have advised against elements in the screenplay that were crushingly pretentious and spoken out in favor of speeding up many scenes in which the pauses are so pregnant they almost give birth before the actors resume speaking.

In short, “Mob Land” is a ponderous attempt at a hayseed film noir that insists on italicizing its nihilist view of life in dialogue as well as narrative.  A solid cast struggles to keep its pulse going.

The story is set in a small town near Tupelo, Mississippi, where Shelby Connors (Shiloh Fernandez), a race-car driver with medical issues, is struggling to support his wife Caroline (Ashley Benson and young daughter Mila (Tia Dimartino).  His brother-in-law Trey (Kevin Dillon) eggs him into joining him in robbing a local clinic that’s an opiod distribution center.

Naturally the heist goes badly.  Trey shoots up the place, and in the sloppy getaway, which Shelby was supposed to handle expertly, their car is chased by guys in a pickup truck, guns blazing.  The intervention of Sheriff Bodie Davis (John Travolta), Caroline’s uncle (who, continuing Maggio’s propensity for unremitting bleakness, has just gotten a diagnosis of terminal cancer), sends the truck into a crash that kills its occupants; Trey and Shelby get away with the dough.

Of course, the New Orleans mob that ran the clinic is not about to let the matter rest.  Ellis (Robert Miano) sends his best hit-man Clayton Minor (Stephen Dorff), a stoically menacing type with a penchant for abrupt violence and a dark view of the world he expounds on at the drop of a hat, to recover the money and deal with the robbers.  It doesn’t take him long to track Trey and Shelby down, since they were inept enough to leave a witness behind who, though wounded, lives long enough to give him their names before Minor disposes of him.

Minor eventually gets the information he needs from Trey with nonchalant brutality.  But Shelby he treats more delicately.  Promising not to allow harm to befall his family, whom he’s sent away for their safety, and even to spare his life if he follows orders, Minor takes the unwilling fellow along on his mission, introducing Shelby to set aside what he thinks are his principles to save himself and his own.  He’s teaching his “disciple,” as it were, the truths he holds about this degraded world and human nature. 

Meanwhile Bodie doggedly goes about his work, getting ever closer to the truth despite the missteps of his deputy (Timothy V. Murphy).  His plodding, world-weary manner can’t save everyone—or even anyone, as it turns out.  But the hunting skills he demonstrates in a prologue in which he brings down a deer serve him well in the film’s coda.

There’s the potential in this material for a fast-moving, viscerally exciting thriller, but that’s not what Maggio has in mind, or what he achieves.  He wants “Mob Land” to be a sort of meditation on the grim reality of this slice of Americana, suffused with hopelessness and pain even pills can’t remove, and to that end he supplies some sudden jolts of violence but prefers a grotesquely slow dance of misery and death, festooned with Minor’s pronouncements about the meaninglessness of it all, delivered between his repeated acts of murder and torture.  It makes for a depressing portrait of a dismal human landscape, offers little beyond that.

Within the limitations of that vision, the film features good work from production designer Daphne Hayes, who captures the rundown ambience of the town and Shelby’s homestead, and cinematography by Nick Matthews that manages some arrestingly composed images.  There’s also a score by David Gerald Steinberg that includes interesting touches, like a mournful duet for cello and violin (or a synthesizer simulacrum) near the close.

As for the cast, Dillon and Travolta are at opposite extremes, the former all jittery intensity and the latter utterly reserved, except when jovial with Caroline and Mila.  Dorff does the cool-as-a-cucumber killer bit well enough, even if he never really registers as creepily threatening, and Fernandez makes a sympathetic guy trapped in circumstances that spin out of control.

If you’re looking for a movie that will provide an adrenaline rush, cross “Mob Land” off your list.  If you want to be steeped in gloom and doom, or are a Travolta completest, on the other hand, this is for you.