A Public Ransom (2014)
Editor’s Note: A Public Ransom is now available to watch online. For details, see the official site
A lion in the conquering hour!
In wild defeat a hare!
—Lord Byron, “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte”
It’s only the writer’s mind that would think to leap from A Public Ransom, a deadpan oddity of a feature debut from novelist Pablo D’Stair, to the Byron poem bemoaning Bonaparte’s abdication. But what is writing if not a mad mental dash to bring together a disparate sprawl of influences and ideas? Like Byron, whose stanzas overflow with allusions to various mythologies and were later set to manic music by Schoenberg in a piece itself influential, D’Stair is caught up in the eternal dialogue of artistry, the intertextual fray of creative construction whereby works live on far longer than those that birthed them.
If it’s a movie that derives, it develops too, taking inspiration from others and using it to fashion something all of its own.
That fray’s at the fore in A Public Ransom, a film dryly admissive of its debt to dozens of filmic forebears with walls lathered in posters. Here is Tout va Bien, there Shoot the Piano Player; Stranger than Paradise stares us down, A Clockwork Orange coyly cocks an eye. Where often such direct deference to influences would only weaken a film, here it seems oddly appropriate; each is evident in the plot’s strange structure—some far more than others—but their unmasked invocation adds a fresh layer to the film’s concern with the act of writing and what it relies on. If it’s a movie that derives, it develops too, taking inspiration from others and using it to fashion something all of its own.
And oh, what an odd thing it is that it fashions. One of the subtler nods, via shelved book, is to Lars von Trier, whose Epidemic is perhaps the primary point of comparison here. That film, featuring von Trier and co-writer Niels Vørsel as themselves concocting a last-minute script, was as fascinating as it was flimsy; A Public Ransom, following a writer who finds himself caught up in a young girl’s kidnapping at the hands of another, is much the same. It is adapted from a piece of flash fiction by D’Stair, and the authorship ideas it plays with—both characters trying to control each other—find in that interplay a fixating sense of standing at the crossroads of fact and fiction.
In its conquering hour it is almighty, an abstract oddity that’s unique for all the inspiration it proudly touts and insightful into the odd process of writing in a way few films are.
“That’s just appalling writing,” the kidnapper comments when his fellow writer mentions an idea their interaction has given him, but D’Stair’s never is. He’s imperviously astute in toying with the complexities of his conceit to make a movie that is, for all its setbacks, unerringly interesting. He shoots in sepia-tinged monochrome, alternating between handsomely-scored and cut montage sequences and single-shot dialogue scenes that push his actors just a little too far. Carlyle Edwards is the lead, and a compelling presence he’s not; if his overzealous affectations undermine the atmosphere of the plot, they’re at least in check with D’Stair’s Tout va Bien-esque self-aware stylings. Goodloe Byron and Helen Bonaparte—you see the link now—fare better, though an aversion to eye contact is unnatural to a flaw.
So it is that A Public Ransom so well suits, however incidentally, Byron’s verse. In its conquering hour it is almighty, an abstract oddity that’s unique for all the inspiration it proudly touts and insightful into the odd process of writing in a way few films are. In the wild defeat that comes of its inability to entirely espouse its ideas free from the pitfalls of amateur production—the sound quality is telling—it is yet fleet of foot. This is a strange sort of movie, one with a sharpness to make almost convincing the contestation that its weaknesses are strengths. Like his chief character, D’Stair’s a writer in search of a story. If A Public Ransom isn’t it, it’s proof at least that once he finds it we’ll be in for a treat.
This is a strange sort of movie, one with a sharpness to make almost convincing the contestation that its weaknesses are strengths.