Popcorn Frights Review: ‘Peppergrass’ Serves Up Undercooked Thrills With A Lack Of Depth
Rather strangely, truffles (the fungus, not the chocolate) have become hot fodder for independent films as of late due to the existence of some evidently rather violent and treacherous black market trading. Brought to the mainstream by Michael Sarnoski’s triumphant anti-revenge film Pig starring Nicolas Cage, Steven Garbas and Chantelle Han are now taking a shot at their own version of the truffle thriller with Peppergrass. Following an intentionally abrupt opening where a sleeping man in a luchador mask who’s wielding a six-shooter is awoken by a bang on the locked restaurant door, viewers are comically introduced to the film’s two leads. It becomes clear when Morris (Charles Boyland of The Virgin Suicides giving this annoyingly incompetent character his all) reveals he resorted to this unconventional face cover upon forgetting his N-95, that they’re in the midst of the COVID pandemic and their dialogue informs viewers that the restaurant’s ends aren’t meeting. After Eula (co-director Chantelle Han of Black Summer wearing multiple hats with graceful nuance) mentions getting a lead on a truffle source following the death of her grandfather and her acquisition of his war medals, they turn to crime for solving their financial woes. The glaring problem with their plan is that aside from not being good criminals to begin with Morris is a cocaine-addled idiot and Eula is newly pregnant with his child, not to mention this highly valuable white truffle they’re looking to steal belongs to an unstable war veteran.
Viewers are given some travel time with the leads as they voyage to the remote cabin where their future victim resides, shedding a little light on their relationship with one another as well as revealing more of their individual quirks: Eula displays an extensive knowledge of truffles gained from her restaurateur grandfather while Morris takes shots of liquor straight from the bottle as he’s driving down the road. A short time after the sun has set they stop to ask for directions at a roadside fish and tackle stand where they’re warned of the veteran’s peculiar nature by an initially suspicious old fishmonger manning the booth. He sends them in the right direction with a raw fish as a peace offering for the standoffish Captain Reuben (Michael Copeman of The Fly doing what little he can with no dialogue or character depth) who upon discovering the duo sleeping in their car outside his gate holds them at gunpoint. They defuse the situation but it’s not long before Morris re-escalates things and lives are lost, which is where the film pivots to a more straightforward wilderness survival scenario following Eula getting lost on her way back to the car. She’s then forced to deal with the symptoms of her pregnancy while surviving the forest and being unknowingly followed by a third party who appears to be dangerous.
The threads sewn in the opening act, though alternating between tense and comedic in delivery, appear to be the story Peppergrass sets it’s sights on telling. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite hit this mark due to uneven pacing and a lack of narrative focus, but the production does manage to make up for these shortcomings in some ways. It’s still generally pleasing to watch the events of the film unfold due to the competent camera work, detailed sound design, beautifully dense atmosphere, and solid performances even when it’s not all that engaging otherwise. The biggest issue is that none of the characters are very likable due to their immediately crooked moral compasses, and had they been even slightly more simpatico it could’ve went a long way. Even the most sympathetic of them all, Eula, remains quite difficult to feel concerned for when committing this unintelligent crime ultimately wasn’t the only available option. In turn the stakes feel significantly lower than they should with the threat of unpredictable violence being such a consistent presence moment to moment. There’s several subplots that ought to warrant an emotional response from the viewer but never amount to anything worthwhile by the time the ninety-four minute runtime comes to a close, making it easy to feel indifferent about the whole affair. As is, Peppergrass is certainly watchable with some clear technical prowess but feels highly unrealized in it’s delivery of a narrative that had the potential to be much more compelling.