Popcorn Frights Review: ‘The Banality’ Is A Southern Gothic Exploring The Profound Nuances of Morality
Typically the Southern United States is presented through the lens of inaccurate crime films, cookie-cutter holiday dramedy outings, or faith based films that have a preachy agenda in mind, with the main exception being period pieces regarding the region’s troubled past. It’s not often that the modern American South is depicted on screen in an authentic, honest way. There are of course outliers to this rule such as Shainee Gabel’s excellent 2004 drama A Love Song For Bobby Long, but they’re few and far between. When reading the description for Strack Azar and Michael Stevantoni’s debut feature The Banality (a.k.a. Death Letter Blues — the better title and a clever nod to the Mississippi Delta, the film’s setting) one might be inclined to think it falls into one of the above categories, when it’s actually among the most realistic depictions of the contemporary rural South put to screen in the last decade.
The film opens by introducing Father Moss (Sherman Augustus, Stranger Things), a local pastor awakened from his dream of a wrathful storm after a young “feral boy” shows up at a local residence, where he tells the childless couple (with implied fertility issues) who found the boy that “the blessings we get are not always the blessings we want” before jumping eleven years ahead to the present day. Father Moss, having recently lost an eye (a subtle but strong thematic device) and now struggling with his own faith, officiates the funeral of a seemingly longtime friend and church member before oddly being informed he was listed in the man’s will. Nathan Fowler (who is now in high school, where his peers still address him as “feral boy”) bites a bully’s hand in retaliation to an unseen off-screen altercation, and following a party later that night is subsequently found dead in the local woods by hunters. This is where the majority of the film’s themes begin to surface, as the Fowlers struggle to come to terms with the tragic loss of their only son and the complete lack of answers provided by authorities investigating his murder.
Ed Fowler (Ramsay Midwood, Homegrown) immediately puts up emotional walls via his alcoholism, while his wife Marcy (Karole Foreman, 42) develops resentment for the people around her as sadness turns into anger. Midwood and Foreman put in a pair of excellent performances as the grieving parents who both have their own set of believably portrayed issues, bringing further nuance to an already well-written script. Sherman Augustus puts in a powerhouse performance of his own as Father Moss, amplified by the discovery of a disturbing letter from the former owner of a car he was left in the aforementioned will. He begins wrestling with a massive moral quandary brought about by this letter in addition to troubling nightmares he believes are related in some way to Nathan’s death, which is all made entirely believable by the level of authenticity Augustus brings to the character. The same praise can be sang for the younger half of the cast as well, including Layton Miller in a solid debut role as Nathan Fowler and Arianna Ngnomire (Nancy Drew), who steals her scenes with a convincing portrayal of Nathan’s best friend Riley.
Gorgeous cinematography breathes extra life into this already impactful Southern Gothic tale through thoughtful composition and a powerful employment of visual storytelling, allowing viewers to transport themselves to this small Mississippi town for the duration of the film’s powerful seventy-eight minute runtime. In just a brief span it manages to paint a vivid picture of human nature (specifically of folks in the Southern U.S.) by raising thoughtful questions about faith, bullying, mortality, decency, destiny, and the general weight of morality on the soul while remaining mysterious in all the right ways to empower the themes. The most impressive accomplishment is that it manages to do all of this without ever feeling like it’s pushing any sort of agenda on you (religious or otherwise) and presents everything from an honestly ponderous point of view, allowing for more varying degrees of interpretation from the audience. This approach leads to it feeling like a film that’s worthy of further dissection and discussion (which will almost certainly veer into more personally philosophical territory than even the film itself) as well as one that asks deeply nuanced questions about what it means to be a good person — inquiries sure to linger in your mind long after the credits roll. Release information and a trailer will be added here as they become available, but until then be sure to keep The Banality on your radar.