Brett Bentman, a Texas filmmaker, enjoys immersing his characters in Texan scenery, capers, crime, and mayhem. We’ve reviewed several of his films, including “90 Feet From Home,” “Copper Bill,” and “The Rodeo Thief.” And, while the storylines differ (except for “90 Feet From Home,” which is a deviation), the premise typically remains the same: a down on his luck burglar resorts to some type of heist to get back on track.
Bentman, on the other hand, keeps the tale tighter and closer to his chest in his latest picture, “Outlaw’s Buckle.” It still stars B22 Films’ favorite, Thom Hallum, but unlike some of his previous efforts, Bentman keeps us guessing by combining a serial killer menace with a deep Texas caper, and the action is well worth it.
The most challenging aspect of “Outlaw’s Buckle” for me is that it contains only four characters for the majority of it and just two for the first 20 minutes or so. Thom Hallum portrays Rollins, a corrections officer in a tiny jail with only one other inmate, the exhibitionist ‘Jelly’ (an outstanding Warren Gavitt). The film begins with the elements that make independent films so successful. We witness Rollins negotiating the monotony of working midnight shifts at a depressing minimum-security jail. In his dream, he pulls out his rifle, looking for action. He misplaces a buck in a vending machine. It’s moments like this that create the tone; Hallum deals with a lot of quiet and face acting, which is unusual for him.
However, it isn’t long before ‘Adams’ (Rachel G. Whittle), a prison guard carrying a serial murderer, arrives by the jail. It’s pouring outside, and if you’ve ever lived in Texas, you know that rainstorms are nothing to laugh at. Rollins agrees to allow her to keep her prisoner in the jail until the storm passes. However, he flees quickly, and the tone swings from mundane to tense and frightening.
What works about “Outlaw’s Buckle” is that, for the first time, the picture is restricted to this jail and these characters. It necessitates a lot of precise cinematography, something B22 fave Anthony Gutierrez excels at. He uses many red flashing lights, power failures, and gloomy hallways that are only accompanied by tight rhythms and thunder clapping outside. It creates an atmosphere heightened by how frightening we have witnessed the killer (Andy Arrasmith).
I’m caught in a dilemma here. Other story aspects might be explored, but I don’t want to give them away because the film has yet to be released. But, suffice it to say, Bentman (the film’s only writer and director) toys with many twists and turns. Just when you think you’ve figured out where the film is heading, it takes an unexpected detour. I’m having second thoughts about this decision; the picture is so frightening on its own that I felt the twists were unnecessary. However, towards the conclusion, I saw the film for what it was: a tale of murder, robbery, deceit, and comeuppance in which fate plays a significant role in the destinies of its characters.
The writing in the film is excellent, and it was refreshing to see Bentman experiment with backstories more here. He inserts a ‘getting-to-know-you’ sequence between Hallum and Whittle that works perfectly. Both actors are also suitable. Hallum is satisfied to play the same stern, purposeful-thinking threat he usually portrays in these films. At the same time, Whittle (with a lengthy cinematic record) is a tour de force, albeit her character becomes a little one-note as the picture swings towards the dramatic.
But what I enjoyed best about “Outlaw’s Buckle” is that it’s daring. It takes chances, which is a sign of an excellent independent film and a good indie director. Bentman is trying something new, which should lead to further risk-taking for the director. The performers follow suit, giving a fascinating performance. It’s also apparent to me that B22 is attempting to create a universe with these films. Bentman has his finger on the pulse of his interpretation of current Texas Westerns in which the participants aren’t so much lawless outlaws revered as legends but hopeless burn-outs seeking for that elusive ‘last score.’ There’s a hint of mischief, a touch of the criminal underbelly, and, I suppose, an indication of the futility of living complicated lives with only one inescapable outcome.
In any case, “Outlaw’s Buckle” is an amusing picture that fits well within Bentman’s universe. Do yourself a favor and see this movie.