The myth of the first feature is so damaging to any aspiring filmmaker. You look at Citizen Kane or Red Road or Blood Simple, and you assume you have to emerge with a stone masterwork. In truth, most first films aren’t that great. Nor should they be – nascent filmmakers use that first effort to learn on the job. Yet we underrate this necessary on-site training, essentially, because a few wunderkinds make the whole origin-story process look effortless.
As such, it’s easy to be charitable towards certain aspects of writer/director Justin Daly’s first film, the neo-noir-Hollywood-satire The Big Take (also known in some circles as Douglas Brown). DP Andreas von Scheele’s digital photography seems unintentionally underlit and smeary. The sound design (courtesy of Eric Di Stefano) struggles to balance voices with the various needle drops.
In one scene, Oksana Lada’s Ukrainian dancer puts on a record while in conversation with her screenwriter husband Max O’Leary (Girls and The Punisher’s Ebon Moss-Bachrach), and the sound mix oscillates unsteadily between music and dialogue. And Daly can’t hide what must be a beyond-modest budget: when aging megastar Douglas Brown (James McCaffrey) meets his agent (Bill Sage) in a hip Hollywood nightclub, Daly relies on close-ups to perhaps hide the fact that he can’t afford many extras.
While I can forgive Daly’s production struggles, there’s still some broken links when it comes to tell a story and craft some interesting characters. The Big Take feels like a version of all those Tarantino homages that emerged in the immediate wake of Pulp Fiction. And like Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead or Two Days in the Valley, Daly mixes manic incident and forced quirk with some originality.
Over the course of The Big Take’s eighty-three-minute runtime (which is more like seventy-seven before the end credits, not considering portions of narrative padding), Daly gives us: a) Slate Holmgren’s unstable producer, who decides to b) blackmail Brown into financing his independent feature (Said Producer drugs Brown and pays a transgender woman to rape him), a choice that puts him into the crosshairs of c) Dan Hedaya’s gruff fixer, who starts d) menacing O’Leary even though e) the latter has no real sense of Holmgren’s plan. And I still haven’t mentioned Zoë Bell’s murderous hacker. Or Brown’s divorce woes. Or how Panama factors into all of this?
I was was amazed the film has as many professional actors as it does. And I then learned Daly was Ingrid Bergman’s grandson. The abruptly violent ending trades in the various character machinations for that not-at-all-tired chestnut: masked killer tortures a bunch of hostages in a murder basement. I’m reminded of Macbeth – something to do with sound, and fury, I think?
Daly casts all these events in weirdly retrograde terms. The film throws out some “shocking” moments, perhaps assuming that the most controversy for an actor to weather, is a clandestine sex-tape. Maybe that was the case twenty years ago, but in 2018, after folks like Hugh Grant and Colin Farrell enjoy robust careers, the prospect seems far less devastating. Daly also has characters readily wield “tranny” as a slur, and he’s far too keen to cast Lada as a sexual prop, all wriggling dance moves and see-through shirts. By the end of The Big Take, I felt Robert Forster gave the film’s most decent performance as a weary cop investigating the periphery of the mayhem. Maybe it’s because like me, Forster couldn’t believe all the nonsense around him. Indeed.
All things considered, it’s a first feature, made with little money and even less time, and we know how hard it is for Hollywood to make a guaranteed blockbuster like, say, World War Z 2, it’s a small miracle that The Big Take exists in any form. Any of the technical issues strike me as normal growing pains, and ones that any persistent filmmaker could best with practice. Sure, Daly isn’t Orson Welles, but why should we expect him to be?