(A.k.a. 120/80: STRESSED TO KILL)
Middle-aged Bill's (Bill Oberst Jr) stress levels are a ticking time bomb. We first meet him on a sweltering day, where he's decided to take in a film at the local cinema before beginning his day's graft as a fire security installation officer. The heat is clearly getting to him, as is getting held up in a particularly unnecessary traffic jam.
He's further agitated by two wittering old dears hogging the queue for cinema tickets, and later by a couple of ignorant arseholes who insist on referring to their mobile 'phones throughout the feature presentation.
Trouble is, Bill is too reserved to do anything more than politely protest and then back off when challenged. This no doubt comes as a consequence of years of living under the thumb of nagging health-obsessed wife Vera (Sonia Curtis).
Upon completing his daily chores, more irritation in the form of passing people finally proves too much for Bill: he collapses in his van, suffering from a heart attack.
Doctor Mac (Tom Parnell) tends to Bill at the nearby hospital. He advises his patient of his abnormally high blood pressure reading and urges him to avoid stress where possible. Mac suggests that Bill takes some time off work in a bid to help his blood pressure return to the desired reading of 120/80. Though, as we've already realised, being at home with Vera may prove a greater hindrance to his recuperation. Reluctantly, Bill obliges. In particular, he listens intently as Mac urges him to find a way of dealing with his primary source of stress: people.
And so, Bill tries to calm down at home. It's not easy. Luckily, he has one outlet away from work and Vera: his good pal, serial divorcee Stanley (Marshal Hilton). He's having troubles thrashing out the terms of his third divorce, and the pair meet one afternoon to discuss such matters over a couple of drinks. When a passer-by bumps into Bill, spilling drink over him and refusing to apologise, Bill follows the ignoramus into the street looking to vent some steam. At that moment, the passer-by is knocked down by a speeding van. A smile emerges across Bill's face. The stress he felt moments earlier has been alleviated...
Lifting a set of ornamental blow-darts from a fixture on his wall at home, Bill resolves to start dealing with the rudest people he encounters in a much more forthright manner. Poisoning the tips of his darts, his first victim is a discourteous driver. Following which, Bill returns to see Mac for a check on his blood pressure. And, would you credit it, the reading is much more agreeable. Mac suggests that whatever Bill is doing, it's working. Told to continue along the same lines for the sake of his health, Bill becomes more prolific with his choice of targets.
Next up, a return to the cinema in a second bid to watch that film in peace. Another inconsiderate patron; another blow-dart death. It's around this time that Bill learns Vera is having an affair, meeting up with her obese lover for illicit sex sessions in the woods each morning. Furthermore, he discovers that his wife has asked their daughter Ashley (Mary Krantz) to loan $150,000.00 from her boyfriend's wealthy parents to help pay for Bill's heart bypass operation - an operation that doesn't exist.
Elsewhere, Bill's boss (Alvin Aki) is constantly hounding him to put in extra hours at work. The general public continue to grate at his nerves on a daily basis. And Stanley informs him that his antics have made the TV news - "my doctor said to eliminate stress from my life" is his somewhat naive reaction. The stress levels are rising, and Bill needs to act to keep them in check.
Naturally, Bill's misdeeds garner the attention of the local police. Specifically loony cop Paul (Armand Assante), a hardnut character with a penchant for loud Hawaiian shirts. He also happens to hate just about every annoying person he encounters...
Is Bill suffering from a midlife crisis, taking stock of his life and deciding that changes must be made? Is he simply a good man who's been pushed to the edge of sanity by an uncaring, fundamentally vulgar society? Or is he a vigilante for the age of post-millennial concerns?
Australian filmmaker Mark Savage has been on the scene for three decades, making waves from the very start of his career with 1986's ultra-violent shot-on-video cult classic MARAUDERS. His filmography has been intriguingly eclectic since then, taking in such delights as comedic action movie SENSITIVE NEW AGE KILLER, arthouse gore epic DEFENCELESS: A BLOOD SYMPHONY and the grim drama STAINED - a short that I loved, but find too harrowing to return to in any great hurry.
STRESSED TO KILL is different again. Co-written by Savage and Parnell (who apparently went through a midlife crisis of his own resulting in him giving up his career as a lawyer to pursue a career in the film industry, beginning with this effort), it's an absorbing riff on everyday paranoias and irks, finding dark humour in the slow-burning mental descent of one man who's well and truly had enough. Which may make it sound a little like TAXI DRIVER or FALLING DOWN, but the comparisons end there.
Oberst Jr is great in the lead role. He's on the screen for the majority of the film, and his performance dominates. His lived-in face is a burning well of intensity from the off, all piercing eyes and tight-lipped anxiety. We like his character from the start, despite sensing from a very early juncture that he's going to be getting up to some pretty nasty things. His character is an everyman, a beleaguered underdog: Savage never allows us to become alienated from him.
I've likened Oberst Jr to a 70s/80s-era Harvey Keitel before, and this resemblance remains true in STRESSED TO KILL. The physical likeness is there facially, and in the dry vocal patterns both actors deliver. Beyond that, a concentrated energy they both share which makes for magnetic viewing while portraying flawed characters that we can't help but identify with. What's remarkable about Oberst Jr is that not only is he insanely prolific - as well as having over 150 acting credits (film and TV) on IMDb since 2007, he regularly performs to acclaim on the stage - he puts his all into each performance. He's true to form here.
But this isn't a one-man show. Able support comes from the excellent Assante, who oozes icy cool whenever he's on the screen. He's a formidable presence with a nice line in sardonic delivery. If anything, he's slightly underused here. Curtis is persuasive as the unlikeable bitch of a wife; Hilton provides entertainment value as Bill's rogue-with-a-heart buddy. Parnell wasn't born to act but, hey, it's a rum do if you can't write yourself a part into the first script you contribute to...
Savage directs with a keen sense of pace and tone. The humour is dark and subtle for the most part, allowing even seemingly dafter set-piece scenes, such as Oberst Jr dressing in drag to infiltrate an addicts' group in order to get to an intended victim, to play with an odd sense of plausibility.
The tone is low-key compared to earlier Savage works, allowing for characterisation to take centre stage. Don't expect a gorefest: the violence is quite subdued. But this works in that the story and characters carry the film, its balance of drama and dark comedy conspiring to deliver a hugely satisfying riff on vigilante cinema.
Shot in HD, the film looks great throughout. Each scene has clearly been prepared with precision and the results are highly attractive at all times. Even if the film doesn't find its feet on the cinema circuit, it feels perfectly suited to DVD (blu-ray, hopefully?) and even future TV screenings.
A pitch-perfect essay on the matter of not simply accepting the shit life throws at you anymore, with a central character who speaks vicariously for all our inner wishes, STRESSED TO KILL impressed me deeply.
The film is due out on US DVD in July, along with a VOD release.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Indie Rights|
|see main review|