“That’s a nice gun. Looks like new. Or is it just unused?”
With Whelm, writer-director Skyler Lawson tells an Indiana-set, Depression-era crime saga in 13 parts with an tonal approach akin to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It’s a patiently told, surprisingly complex story about two midwestern brothers — August (Ronan Colfer) and Reed (Dylan Grunn) — who are pulled into a criminal conflict between mysterious Alexander Aleksy (Delil Baran) and Jimmy (Grant Schumacher).
Voiceover narration ruminates on the nature of violence and characters converse with a poetic cadence that adds weight to their words. Lawson shoots for the mythic rather than the natural, leaning into genre trappings with a headstrong confidence. In the instances when Whelm doesn’t succeed, that doesn’t mean it’s failing. Rather, it feels like a movie pushing against the confines of budgetary boundaries.
Whelm is a 100% Indiana-based independent production that feels like it was made for a larger budget than Lawson actually had at his disposal, and with more time than the 14-day shooting schedule would suggest. It’s hard not to be impressed while watching it, and it’s difficult to not be a little proud that a film which leans into this level of aesthetic beauty and crime-genre hallmarks was made right here in Indy.
The story is told in several chapters and unfolds like clockwork, with most segments containing one or two major character exchanges or plot beats. It maintains a steadiness for its almost two-hour runtime, a level of structural consistency that results in the movie’s overall strengths and weaknesses. Whelm finds its strongest rhythms when Lawson digs into his Depression-era, Midwestern setting — in particular through character flashbacks or glimpses at downtown Wabash. The cinematography by Edward Herrera (shot on Kodak 16mm film) is so good that, honestly, some of the best moments are when characters ponder solemnly or walk through fields.
That same steadiness and approach to breaking up the story results in some character relationships that feel somewhat under-developed and character-based plot twists that feel schematic rather than part of the story’s driving action. Due to this, the central story is sometimes confusing, despite ample narration and expository dialogue to explain the heists at the heart of the film. Whelm tells a large story that may be too large for itself, or perhaps simply needs more action to keep the plot propulsive and engaging. Once again, it brings to mind Jesse James, a film that moves similarly and has a unique voice that sticks in the mind longer than the details of the plot. I imagine it will be similar here.
This is not to speak ill of the performances, in particular Baran’s role as Aleksy, “spelled K-S-Y,” who opens the film with a robbery and serves as the most enigmatic character as the story unfolds. He’s great, playing a character whose motives are shrouded and slowly revealed — dangerous but also feeling the weight of his actions at all times. Despite the ever-increasing scale of the story’s ambitions, the cast is never a weak link.
Ambition is the key word with Whelm, as it’s an independent film with none to spare — every ounce of that ambition is on the screen, and it shows. Whether Whelm hits every storytelling target it shoots for is beside the point. Hoosier filmmaking tends to see only a handful of narrative features every few years, rarely with the same hunger for a story as this size. It’s an impressive debut and hopefully the first of many to come from Lawson and his team.
Whelm will have its world premiere at Heartland Film Festival 2019. Tickets can be purchased here.
7:45 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 13 — The Toby at Newfields (World Premiere)
7:10 p.m., Thursday, Oct 17 — AMC Castleton Square
Filmmakers Skyler Lawson and Edward Herrera will be hosting a workshop on the making of Whelm at 1 p.m., Sunday, October 13, at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery Lounge in Castleton Square. Tickets for that workshop can be purchased here