Between Heaven and Hell is an indie film produced locally in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and took the better part of 2 years to complete (all during spare time on the weekends). The story came from Marvin Faulkner who wrote the piece in order to cope with his wife’s passing away. It was shot on a very shoestring budget by people who (admittedly) are filmmaking novices. Before that scares you off, take a look below. Here’s the official synopsis:
Mike Taylor is suffering from the grief of his wife passing away when he decides to drink his troubles away at a bar. This poor choice leads him to witness a murder of a call girl and as he struggles to find a way out of the mess he’s entangled himself in, he inadvertently places his son in harms way. It’s up to Mike to come to grips with his reality, accept his responsibility and to set things straight. But can he do it before the murderer targets his family?
Along the way Mike meets up with a hooker as he unravels what is essentially a plot by a police officer to cover up a murder. Detective McGill (Jeff Wallin) finds himself trying to save his brother’s marriage and tries to pay the home-wrecking hooker to get out of town. She won’t leave, explains she wants to marry Jim McGill (Andrew Sensenig), and unfortunately the Detective accidentally murders her. There’s a large cast of characters and somehow things end up going way overboard as Mike Taylor (Marvin Faulkner) tries to just live his life and keep his son out of harm’s way.
What we get is a story about choices, and at it’s core the journey to find one’s faith again.
Normally, this is something I save until the end of a review, but I need to make this clear before you keep reading (you’ll understand in a few paragraphs). I won’t go into a number ranking system. I’ll simply say this: WATCH IT. That’s my verdict. It’s worth picking up and watching
I already mentioned the story, but I’ll say so again. This is an interesting story and one that kept me watching, mostly so I could see how it would all play out. Not all films do that, but here the story was enough to make you stick through till the end. It has a good message that makes you think, so it manages to take you deeper than expected.
For as small a budget as they had (and little to no experience with these things) the production quality is surprisingly high. In general the scenes were lit very well, and had moments where you could have sworn it was shot on film and not digitally. The only problem was that this wasn’t consistent. The image would sometime fluctuate, and go from amazing Hollywood quality to obviously indie film just between two shots. The camera angles are solid, and in some instances dynamic enough to convey the proper feelings and emotions (though most of the time they’re generic but absolutely get the job done).
The sound proved to be an issue on occasions with levels seeming to change from scene to scene. Sometimes a conversation would start out low, then go really high when they cut to the next scene or vice versa. Fortunately those instances weren’t all that often and corrected themselves fairly quickly. Overall though, it was some impressive work.
The performances weren’t too shabby. While they are a group of largely untrained actors (especially the lead role of Mike Taylor), you wouldn’t really notice it. You’d assume that they’ve all had at least a few classes and roles elsewhere. While it sometimes gets a little high-handed (or hammed up), they handle themselves very well. The opening scene in the bar, and the ‘turning point’ scene where he’s out in the woods in particular stand out as believable and grabbed my attention.
This is where I feel bad…because I really did like this film, but there were some issues that really held it back from reaching a much higher potential. However, as a reviewer and a filmmaker, there are points I need to make.
Honestly, this was my biggest problem with the film: dialogue. It was too much. No one feels very natural in their interactions (it’s not the actors’ fault either) and every conversation gets way too deep/philosophical way too fast. Take for example the scene when Mike first goes to meet his son in the coffee shop. He immediately goes into talking about his wife and her death, and makes you feel incredibly awkward. Imagine sitting down with a guy, barely exchanging a hello, and then having to hear him pour out his soul to you. It’s uncomfortable and you’re not sure how to deal with it.
Later on, Mike meets up with a hooker from the bar where he started the film. He doesn’t so much meet her, as she comes looking for him. The problem here, is there’s no clear reason why she was seeking him out. She doesn’t need anything from him; in fact it’s Mike who needs information from her. It’s evident he wants to avoid her, but when he does acknowledge her her there’s no questioning of why she’s there or what she wants. They just strike up a conversation and try to help each other.
That’s the crux of the problem. The interactions just aren’t believable for the most part. In most scenes there aren’t any salutations between characters, or banter. Every line of dialogue is geared towards pushing the theme of the film forward. Does this work? Yeah, it gets the story across and moves everything along, but this makes for boring characters who are much harder to buy into.
One more example: there’s a scene towards the end of the film where the police captain’s daughter, Paige White (Ali Faulkner), goes over to Steve McGill’s house. From what we were told in the scene before, the two used to be ‘close’ and had some sort of relationship, but her father broke that up a while ago. Supposedly they haven’t seen each other in a while, but when she goes to Steve’s home he opens the door and lets her in with barely a hello. There’s no talk about how each one has been doing, or flirtatious banter…none of that. Honestly, nothing in what they said made it seem like they knew each other. Instead the conversation jumps immediately into the murder.
For short films, this type of set-up is totally understandable. You simply don’t have enough time to evolve the characters through ‘useless’ dialogue that’s not directly related to the plot. In a feature length film, however, it’s a hard flaw to look past. More banter or ‘useless’ conversations would have gone a long way towards developing the characters, and they would have had plenty of time if they had cut out my next point.
Are side-plots a bad thing? Hell no, sometimes they can add a great deal to the story and help flesh everything out. However, too many can be detrimental to your story, and it’s something Between Heaven and Hell suffered from. There are just too many of these character subplots in this film. The film strayed far from the main character (Mike Taylor), to the point on a couple occasions I had totally forgotten what he was up to when they did come back to him. In general, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the dialogue doesn’t give you a chance to ease back into his story.
For the most part these little subplots just didn’t do anything for the overall story. The story of the police Captain and his own indiscretions comes in about the last quarter of the film (so very late), yet at the end the filmmakers felt it was important enough to show a scene between him and his wife (presumably where he tells her he’s cheated on her) in the finale. But guess what? It doesn’t make any sense. He was never presented as a central character but all of a sudden we’re supposed to care about his confession.
Most of these side stories deal with the movie’s central theme of living with the consequences of your actions. While it’s a great theme, and each action illustrates that point, the subplots don’t tie together well enough to feel cohesive. Instead it feels slightly disjointed and I found myself wanting to merely get back to the character I started with. Truthfully, if they’d cut out all of the unneeded side stories, it would have been a 40 minute film. That’s why I say there’s plenty of room where they could have fleshed out the cast of characters they had with more dialogue and personality.
As I said, the story was great and really kept me watching, but I felt like I had to trudge through these side plots in order to see what I wanted to see. More of the main characters and the main story would have taken this to another level.
I wanted to see more interactions between Mike and his son. They talked briefly about how Mike used to be a boxer (which becomes a big factor at the end), but they never go into it further. They had a great set-up for a subplot within their own main character, yet the film ignores it. The relationships that you really want to see developed just don’t get there. Instead you get hit with new faces and new characters that come out of nowhere.
Lots of Telling, No Showing
This is a common problem with filmmakers who don’t have as much experience. They feel like they have way too much information, but not enough time to get it across. So what do you do? Narrator! They have the narrator tell you a lot in this film. Rarely do you get the chance to see it for yourself, or jump to your own conclusions. By using this they try and get away from showing these things. Instead of showing the relationship with his son and how he’s helping him become this great boxer and bonding closer than ever because of it…the characters simply tell you this.
Take the scene where Mike meets with ‘God’ presumably. Sure, it’s a somewhat cliche scene but it works…right up until the narrator pops in. Mike’s sitting on a bench after humbling himself before God in church. Soon a hobo joins him, and they have a very enlightening conversation, after which the man simply disappears. As soon as that happened my first thought was, oh that’s kind of cool…God actually answered him and gave him everything he needed. Then before I can even finish that thought, the narrator comes in and says “I don’t know if it was God or just a dirty hobo…” and essentially ruins the audience’s own epiphany.
Another time it killed me was at the climatic fight scene where, even with a gun on his head and beaten into the ground, Mike feels the need to have this very long discussion with his son about choices. It’s a conversation they had right before this scene, and while it wasn’t actually that long, it felt totally unnecessary and nearly killed all of the tension. It wasn’t very believable either at that point, but that goes back to dialogue.
As much as they used ‘telling’ instead of ‘showing’ it feels like they didn’t trust their abilities as filmmakers enough to trust that the audiences would understand what they put on screen.
I’m not going to ruin this for you. Despite all these criticisms I really like the story and encourage you to pick this one up, so I won’t tell you how it all ends. It’s not a bad ending per se, but a lot of it just doesn’t seem believable. Little known fact about me, is that I’m a cop (I actually worked in Mansfield, where they filmed all of the Police Department shots). This story had a lot to do with police officers and I have to say, they really should have done some research before treading onto that ground. That’s getting technical and picky, so I won’t go into that much, but for me personally, I had a hard time buying it.
Again, I found myself wanting to see more of a conclusion with Mike and his son instead of the endings of the various subplots. I really was hoping to see a scene with Mike cheering/coaching his son on during the big boxing match they talked about previously. I also wanted some closure to the first murder that happened. The hooker who gets killed is really the catalyst for the whole story, but half-way through she’s almost entirely forgotten, and never revisited. Everyone becomes so involved in their own stories that no one seems to care about her anymore. As important as she was, she deserved more closure.
On the whole, I like how the film ended. The last few scenes before the credits rolled were a great fit and left the film on a very high note. It was merely the climax and the side-stories that got in the way.
I know this review focused on the negative more than the positive, and for that I apologize. Not because I’m particularly worried about hurting anyone’s feelings (wouldn’t be very impartial if I did) but because I really do want you to see this film. Despite all of the technical problems, the story is very interesting. Like I said before, the main story kept me watching, even through the problems and unnecessary plot lines, until the very end.
Summarily, this feels like a first draft, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. Like a first draft of any script or novel it needed some hard edits, in order to be refined. Instead it feels all over the place and unfocused. A simple re-read would have shown how a lot of those subplots needed to be cut.
You can feel and sense a great story beneath all of these problems and I would love to see that story told without the excess baggage. Edit out the unnecessary, work on the basics of dialogue and writing, and give us that great story unhindered from the issues. The fat just needed to be trimmed, and the filmmakers needed some more experience (because if they had it, these story issues would have been apparent). Considering where they came from and what they went through to get this film done, I’m impressed with how well it turned out.
They missed a few opportunities to expand the stories and the characters, and thus keeps this movie from shining as much as it has the potential to. That’s the key here, it could be so much more, but that doesn’t mean what we have here isn’t worth giving a try. It’s truly a solid story, filled with emotion and engaging enough to keep you planted in your chair throughout the entire ride. I didn’t want to pull away from the film, because I had to know what happened next. That’s why I wish these technical issues hadn’t gotten in the way.
If they can learn to make those hard edits the story needs, and gain some more experience, then they’re definitely a group I look forward to seeing more from. I’m interested in seeing what they can do next and are on my radar for filmmakers to watch.
Be sure to pick up your copy of Between Heaven and Hell November 16th when it will be available on DVD and Digitally. Check out their main website for more information.