Tonic hits about every beat you’d want from contemporary noir. Sebastian Poe (Billy Blair) is a down-on-his-luck bar pianist who loves both drinking and music, sometimes in the wrong order. He has the talent and skill behind the keys but finds himself begging for more opportunities than he’s given. It’s a lousy life. Grim streets, dank bars, lonely nights spent at the bottom of a glass or pill bottle. Even when he goes home, he has to serve as caretaker to his ailing sister Elise (Lori Petty). Sebastian loves Elise, but he has run out of energy for her. Nobody in their right mind would ever want to be him. Not even he wants to be him.
Sebastian’s bad habits and hard life eventually land him in hot water with the wrong man — Terry Rush (Jason Coviello), a crooked cop happy enough to call in favors when his junkie street trash can’t pay up. Rush tells Poe he has one night to make up a $7,000 debt by following through with a little task — murdering a man named Roberson (Ed Westwick), a clean-up job of sorts. Poe’s not a great guy, but he’s hardly a murderer, and with a one-night time limit, he finds himself on a journey into the darkest parts of the city and the bleakest depths of his soul.
Writer-director Derek Presley really lands Tonic by never losing sight of what makes a good noir story tick. Sure, he has rain-slicked exteriors, the shadowy settings and the short-but-sweet dialogue that briefly, at the right moment, bursts into a long monologue about goodness in a world long since gone bad. All of the aesthetic elements are present. What Presley really, fundamentally understands is that the center of a noir needs a character whose lives life on the edge but still has room inside for corruption. Poe isn’t a hero. He’s not even necessarily sympathetic on the surface. But he has plenty of space to fall, and that fall is depicted here with a sincere intensity that simply works.
A good script is nothing without a lead performance, and the star attraction here is Blair, sinking his teeth into the sort of role every actor seems to seek over their career but rarely finds. Sebastian may be a loser sack of shit, but we still want to see how his story ends. Will he make it through the night? Will he become a killer or save his soul? Can he turn himself around? Will he ever get to play the show he so desperately thinks he deserves? These are questions that wouldn’t matter if the performance didn’t provide a reason to care. Blair’s so damn good. A coward with a heart of … well, not gold, but there’s enough heart there to mourn its loss.
There’s maybe only one frustrating plot point toward the end that borrows from classic genre staples but doesn’t bring any new perspective. Over the course of his journey, Poe meets Jane (Ammie Masterson), a call girl he rescues from some assailants. They have a conversation about whether or not there is still good in the world. She’s the quintessential hooker with the heart of gold who sees the beauty in everything despite her lot in life. It’s a bit of a tired trope, and even for a film that leans on the conventions of its genre, it still feels a little bit underserved. That said, Masterson is still great in the role, and the scene allows Blair to finally explode with his big rant on the state of the world — so it’s not exactly a black eye on the whole endeavor.
Given its history in the annals of cinematic canon, noir tends to be a genre at which a lot of creatives throw their talent. It doesn’t always lead to a good finished product. There are a lot of potential pitfalls. You need to get the visuals right, for one, but the fundamental soul of the story must fit the darker themes without losing sight of its characters and their troubles. Tonic is a pretty good noir story, with strong performances that make the script sing. Worth checking out.