Directed by J.L. Vara
Starring Adam Nee, Aaron Nee
When I see the title “South of Heaven” I think of the 80’s metal band Slayer. This was the name of one of their songs. That’s definitely not what we’re dealing with here.
This film focuses on two brothers that just want to write the great American novel but external circumstances get in their way. One of them is wrapped up in a plot to get cash from the mob through a kidnapping, while the other is in the wrong place at the wrong time and finds himself accused of something he did not do. There’s a lot of beat downs with some rape thrown in and of course a murder or two, just in case you didn’t get that, this film is supposed to be edgy.
This will be an extremely confusing film to many viewers. It’s extremely gritty throughout and full of the old ultra violence. Blocked between those scenes are successfully executed scenes of humor and still others of just an utter bizarre nature. The tone shifts can be rather jolting but what’s amazing is just how deft a hand the director has at dealing with this type of atmosphere. It’s so odd you could almost call this film a nihilistic comedy and that just sounds too wrong. The humor doesn’t soften the depravity one bit, which is what humor is usually used for in a film of this sort. You could argue for the sheer unique-ness of the film but I honestly found these shifts distracting and frustrating.
Perhaps part of the reason the tonal variety is distracting is because the overall look is distracting too. Vara was working with very little money here so he rightfully chose to work within his limitations rather than trying to hide them. Some cheap art direction is taken to the extreme with all sorts of tools including rear projection and animation. Some sequences felt like a low budget riff on Natural Born Killers.
It may sound like I didn’t like the film and overall I didn’t; I don’t think I did anyway. I’m unsure on that answer because there is truly something engrossing about the kitchen sink nature of the film. Vara throws everything into this film and he’s very good executing each part but the film just doesn’t equal the sum of its parts.
Synapse is one of the few companies left out there that brings us these little gems and really tries to present them in the best possible way. This film is grainy as Hell but it’s also vivid and bright. Detail is low in places and one instance of animation is extremely aliased. Overall this SD presentation is nice to look at though. Colors and tones are accurately reproduced and that’s the most important part of the video for this particular film.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix here is clean and well balanced with a surprising amount of surround sound usage. The one complaint is that one or two of the characters are a little tough to hear in a few places.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
This single disc release comes packaged in a standard DVD case with cover art that is honestly a bit cheaper looking than I’ve come to expect from Synapse.
For extras there are three audio commentaries and some short films from the director. If you love the feature you’ll probably like the shorts and if you didn’t like the feature these shorts won’t change anything for you. You can see an interesting evolution of style and technique from these shorts to the feature though.
The commentaries feature the director, actors, producers, online film critics and more. Every aspect of the film gets covered in these commentaries from acting and character to filmmaking and style to influence and critical discussion. Watching the movie again with these commentaries is actually extremely informative and interesting. Making of featurettes would have been nice but these commentaries and short films do pretty much tell the tale of South of Heaven.
South of Heaven isn’t going to be appealing to most viewers. Those it does appeal to will love it. I love good Tarantino and good Lynch but either of those done badly is a recipe for a stomach ache. I’m a fan of weird but not weird just for weird’s sake and that’s unfortunately the feeling this movie gave me. It’s kind of like rutabaga. There’s no point to it. It’s just damn weird. At the same time, you gotta throw a little respect to the chef that tries to cook it.
Overall (Not an Average) 5/10
The Movie 5/10
The video 7.5/10
The Audio 7/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 8/10
Overall (Not an average) 5/10