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The only thing Walker Payne (Jason Patric) loves more than Brute, his sweet-tempered pitbull, is his two young daughters Sara and Beth. But his spiteful ex-wife Lou Ann (Drea de Matteo) won't let him see the girls anymore until he comes up with $5000 so she can leave her smalltown life behind for better things. Broke and out of work, Payne has no choice but to hook up with a shady, sharp-dressed hustler, Syrus (Sam Shepard), and enter Brute into sadistic and illegal dog-fighting competitions.
Set in a tiny Illinois town in the 50s, WALKER PAYNE (2006) has a good period atmosphere and captures the era and the setting well. The script by Alex Paraskevas and director Matt Williams (who does a solid job for a TV sitcom veteran) avoids big showy moments in favor of an understated realism (my favorite line is when Syrus describes Payne as "too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash"). After establishing the main conflict and introducing a love interest for Payne--pretty bank teller Audrey (KaDee Strickland) from Chicago--this leisurely-paced, slightly soapy drama starts to heat up and take on a feeling of dread as Payne's dealings with Syrus get darker and more dangerous.
Jason Patric does a good job here of helping me forget that he's the guy from THE LOST BOYS. As the ex-wife from hell, Drea de Matteo totally sheds her Jersey persona from "The Sopranos" and is surprisingly convincing as a poor Midwestern gal. Sam Shepherd, of course, can do no wrong, and neither can the venerable Bruce Dern as Payne's animal-loving friend, Chester. Guy Boyd, another one of my favorite character actors, shows up as the resident dog-doctor during the fight scenes, which was a very pleasant surprise since I've thought he was dead for about the last ten years. The whole cast is good--heck, even the dog gives a moving performance.
As a contrast to the lazy, hazy smalltown ambience we see early on, the dogfight scenes are pretty disturbing. By this time we're well aware of the close bond between Payne and his dog, and it's pretty hard to watch as he sends Brute into the fighting pit, desperate to get the money to buy his daughters back. These scenes take place in isolated backwoods locations where danger and paranoia hang heavy. A couple of police chases amp up the suspense, especially since Payne's breaking his parole by both participating in illegal dogfights and crossing the state line to do it.
Some brief nudity pops up now and then, which is nice, except that one of the bare backsides we catch a glimpse of during the film belongs to Jason Patric. (As he was sitting nude on the bed, I kept thinking, "Don't stand up...don't stand up...", but he stood up.) Of course, I guess this is a plus if you're a big Jason Patric fan. There's very little comedy relief past the first third or so--even during an impromptu lovemaking scene by a scenic lake, the budding romance between Payne and Audrey is low-key and somber. And if you love dogs, the scenes during and after the final dogfighting "championship" may be hard to watch.
It's here that a final surprise comes right out of left field. Earlier, Syrus tells Payne the story of a man who once brought his pitbull into a bar and bet everyone that he could skin it alive without a whimper ("A bulldog's indestructible," chuckles Guy Boyd's character while stitching up the ravaged Brute after a fight). And in one startling moment, we see just how much of a bastard Syrus really is.
Added: Friday, July 25, 2008
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