Review by Paul Burch
January 8th, 2018
PICKINGS is a lurid tale of a nasty band of thugs trying to extort money from a bar (and running into an owner who's even nastier than them) that begins with a quote from Isoruoku Yamamoto - a Japanese admiral who served during both world wars. It’s an interesting quote to introduce the viewer to a film; those who know about Yamamoto’s achievements, they include the preventive strike. The scene that follows, unfortunately, makes this introduction quizzical and maybe even a bit ostentatious. The ideas are in the words but the historical and political context make it the wrong move. PICKINGS, otherwise, isn’t really a film that’s interested in being anything but stylization. There’s never anything wrong with this other than when it’s lacking some kind of crucial recognition to its purpose.
This is a fatal flaw in many filmmakers that try to follow the “patchwork” formats of Quentin Tarantino and Brian De Palma. Both of those classic auteurs build their worlds on pop culture references but they’re not there just to look pretty or to look like they’re ripped from the cloth of their ancestors. Inglorious Bastards may be a fun time - and it may have kinetic direction, long-winded monologues and the epitome of cool that makes Tarantino such an attraction. But it’s also about nationalism; there is irony in a story that alternates history for American nationalist ideas. Tarantino likes his blood, his vocabulary and his movie history. His work isn’t just cool for the style - it’s cool because the style of history is shading our contemporary ideals with those of history. This is a critical misstep of most independent (and student) films that are influenced by him. PICKINGS has a lot of care put into the way it looks - but to a degree to where the substance doesn't even matter.
Director Usher Morgan definitely has an eye for cheeky allusions, even if it's sometimes pushed toward the heavy-handed (smoking in front of a “no smoking sign”; dual matching shots of switching a “sorry, we’re closed”/“yes, we’re open” sign around). It shows promise but Morgan doesn’t make any of it palpable in his overall universe. The aforementioned opening scene is a shadow-filled monologue; neo-noir in a way that’s reminiscent of Sin City (there’s even a character in the film that’s completely in black and white while everyone else is in color). There are many shots blocked and lit this way throughout the film - especially in the Western-esque atmosphere of the plot-central bar. Other scenes - entire ones, actually - are less stylized, and are lit naturally. Was this some kind of parallel to the “darkness” that exists with the otherwise materialist landscape of our heroine? I would like to think so but there’s never anything beyond what’s emotionally happening and those emotions didn't feel authentic.
The leading actress, Elyse Price, gives her all to the role for sure. While there’s a bit of inconsistency in her more Tarantino-esque monologues and voiceovers, it’s in her emotive scenes where she truly shines (this is an actress that screams and wails and you truly believe the pain she’s in). I just wish she'd been given more to work with. Basically, she’s a women with a dark history and little else. This isn’t a new concept - even David Cronenberg nailed the conventions of this tired-and-true Western trope with his 2005 film A History of Violence. You can almost feel Morgan relying on Price’s performance for it to work but in a film that’s so genre-bending, it only clashes - introducing yet another subgenre (the indie drama) into a tapestry of many other genres that are already clashing with one another.
You can tell where Morgan’s ideas were going; a subversion of these tropes in a way that is genre-bending and still attempts to be a character study by the end of it. But our heroine here is the same one-dimensional archetype we’ve seen since the action yarns of the 80s and while placing a woman in this role is interesting, there’s nothing really feminine about the way she exists in the world beyond being a mother, which is yet another crosspoint to a Tarantino movie: Kill Bill. The only “emotion” we have to latch on to are dialogue-free montages set to a somber, violin-driven soundtrack. Beyond that, we know next to nothing about her and find it too easy to simply picture her out of something akin to Sons of Anarchy; only without the subversion of the material.
There’s clearly a love for the material the director is influenced by but it’s all thrown together in a recipe that looks great and has strong texture but tastes incredibly bland. There's no question that Morgan and Co. have put up a strong indie film production-wise and with technical precision but by the end, PICKINGS unfortunately exists as a blueprint for everything wrong with Tarantino imitators.