Review: Gavin Fields Displays A Clear Love For Classic Cinema In Directorial Debut ‘Brutal Season’
Right from the opening scene of Gavin Fields’ noir-laced period drama Brutal Season, viewers are let in on the fact that this entire production they’re about to witness is just that: an artificial production taking place on a sound stage. Talk about a way to ruin immersion, right? One might naturally have this thought, but it’d be incorrect. Fields allows viewers to forget this notion rather quickly through sharp, immediately engaging dialogue between the excellently realized members of the Trouth family. Set entirely within the confines of their 1948 Brooklyn apartment during the midst of a massive heatwave, the film depicts the directionless, dark nature of a post World War II society from the perspective of a struggling family. Following the opening narration the film continues to invoke the stage play format, as viewers are introduced to the characters one by one before being dropped right into the kitchen of the Trouth family alongside matriarch Gayle (Colleen Madden in an astoundingly good debut feature role), her husband Louis (James Ridge putting in a nuanced, slightly uneven debut performance), and their son Charlie (Markwood Fields, wielding a charming on-screen presence for a first time role) as they chat about the slowly encroaching dock over breakfast. They’re joined by their daughter Marianne (Shelby Grady, Law of Attraction) on her way in from a morning date who she seemingly doesn’t want to bring home, and through their discussion a picture of their current situation is organically painted. They’re all juggling a particular set of personal issues that feed into the family dynamic in a realistic way, while it’s made overtly clear the financial woes are at the forefront of all their minds.
Though modest and minimal, the set design is authentically realized in a way that when accompanied by the structure and technical decisions sort of simulates the feeling of a bygone era of film. For example, after Charlie heads out to a matinee at the cinema and Louis to search for employment, Gayle and Marianne discuss a memory while matching visuals are projected outside of the window much like they might’ve been decades ago in a similar film. These choices paired with the well-framed cinematography all feed into the overall tone Fields has crafted with the script, which mixes family drama with a noir-esque mystery in a way that feels highly reminiscent of classic cinema. While the women converse they’re shocked by the arrival of Junior (Houston Settle, Silent Strength: Three Stories), Gayle and Louis’ eldest son, who after leaving home twelve years ago they haven’t seen or heard from since. The night after his surprise arrival, the troubling reasons he left home bubble to the surface during an argument between Junior and his father. The next morning the police deliver the news that Louis was found dead near the dock, kicking off the central mystery and second act of Brutal Season which feels a tad drawn out following the highly engaging opening act. It remains interesting, though, via mostly solid performances from the family members as their relationships change due to Junior becoming the head of the household.
After the internal familial issues are addressed, tension ramps back up with the arrival of investigative life insurance agent Randy Hawkes (Shuler Hensley of Van Helsing putting in a pitch perfect performance), who unexpectedly shows up at the Trouth residence to individually question each family member about Louis’ untimely death. The stakes are adequately high here, as there’s much uncertainty regarding the exact circumstances of his death despite an obvious lead. These interviews each feel unique, natural, and add a sense of urgency to the dialogue that make them very engaging to watch unfold. The revelatory information is slowly, unknowingly revealed across this final act so that when the reveal comes along everything adds up nicely in the way of details. The reveal itself, however, ends up feeling a bit underwhelming after so much build up even though it boasts significant emotional weight and makes as much logical sense as any other outcome. It’s almost as if the film intentionally misleads viewers to increase the effectiveness of the finale, but it ends up having the opposite effect in the end. All in all there’s something special about how much care is put into paying respects to the cinematic experience of yesteryear while still trying to do something fresh narratively, and those aspects alone make Brutal Season a directorial debut worth seeking out when it releases.