Tribeca Film Festival review: Thumper

Like a dog chasing its tail, there’s no end to the drug-fueled cycle director Jordan Ross presents in his feature film debut Thumper.

No matter what side — cops or criminals, the outcome remains equally bleak in this tale of crippling poverty and meaningless violence.

The crime thriller premiered in the Spotlight Narrative category at the Tribeca Film Festival last month, and is one not to be missed whenever it finds wider release.

From its opening tracking shot of drug kingpin Wyatt (a devilish Pablo Schreiber; think: Walter White but with PTSD), the audience is left dazed and deceived by Ross’ brilliant camera work.

Who is this bald, tattooed man? Can he really be all that bad with a child attached at his hip and scrambling to make breakfast for another?

The answer, of course, is yes.

Once the kids are out the door with their mom, Wyatt’s affectionate side dissipates and all that’s left is a seething, burning stare.

It’s business time.

And in this unnamed and heavily-littered California neighborhood, there’s a shortlist of money-making enterprises.

Teenage dealers Troy and Beaver (Grant Harvey and Daniel Webber), who enter the home as soon as the family exits it, know the game all too well; their futures set in stone thanks to the monster who towers over them as they make way to a padlocked shed in the backyard where he pulls off the tarp of his meth cookhouse.

The hopelessness and seediness imprinted in this first scene never wear off.

But there’s some intentional (and masterful) misdirection on Ross’ part: he starts in the empty kitchen and clustered livingroom of the film’s antagonist, but Wyatt becomes a supporting character after his initial introduction.

The story pivots with Beaver who meets Kat (Eliza Taylor), a new girl at his high school, and invites her to a party in an abandoned lot.

Ross hammers home the middle class struggle with familiar imagery — vodka sipped straight from bottles, marijuana passed around like Skittles, and crumbling walls tagged with spray paint — borrowing wisely from his predecessors. (The 2005 indie film Brick and the HBO miniseries True Detective, which was directed by Thumper’s executive producer Cary Fukunaga, are two that come to mind.)

Ultimately, the daytime Emmy-winner is able to create something that stands on his own, and that’s because Thumper doesn’t masquerade behind shadowy murder mysteries and conspiracy theory puzzles.

Once the film’s big secret is exposed, it only knows one gear: Unrelenting danger.

If you’re looking for a movie with paranoid, schizophrenic tempo, Thumper doesn’t let its audience breath for its final 20 minutes or so.

And credit to Ross’ script, too.

His camera paints a disturbing picture — one filled with broken schools, empty fields, and crumbling homes; decorated with a close knit group of friends that spend their free time consuming excessive amounts of alcohol and drugs until they are addicted and overdosing — but the words spoken, especially those intimate scenes between Kat and Beaver, carry a heavy weight that sticks long after the credits roll.

Webber perfectly captures the complexities of a tortured teen who desperately wants a better life for himself, and his brother with Down Syndrome. He’s dealing meth to save up enough money to take his brother out west, where the schools are better — and their abusive father can no longer harm them.

Escape comes at a price — one that might even cost others their lives.

Kat will do anything to stop this from happening again, even if it means permanently fracturing her own life.

It’s a virtuoso performance from Taylor, one that requires range beyond her years.

And speaking of talent: Schreiber’s unforgiving, barbaric intensity has him destined to be one of Hollywood’s most sought villain actors, if not more.

His turn as Wyatt leaves us with a character we’ll be talking about for some time — an unpredictable drug lord, with a strange moral code, who doesn’t want to see anyone slip out of the grasp of his dirty, savage hands.

This is an underbelly worth crawling out from, but what is there when we do?