"The Prodigy," The Roxie, Delirium, God

Michael Guillen May 30, 2007

San Franciscans have a poignant symbiotic relationship with William Kaufman’s freshman feature “The Prodigy.“ This genre hybrid — which Film Threat’s Mike Watt has aptly described as “a crime movie that plays like a horror movie” — had its world premiere at the Roxie Film Center during the 2005 Another Hole in the Head Film Festival. Then-SF Indiefest programmer Bruce Fletcher added “The Prodigy” to the festival’s line-up even though, by his own admission, “it didn’t really fit.” Notwithstanding, San Franciscan audiences ate it up, encouraging other festivals to follow suit.

Two years later The Prodigy accepted Bruce Fletcher’s invitation to return to San Francisco’s Roxie Film Center for a weeklong run; this time under the aegis of Dead Channels. Particularly noteworthy is that this is the film’s only North American theatrical distribution before it leaps into DVD sales through Fireside Releasing. Once again, San Franciscans have championed the film, for which they should be rightfully proud.

Attending opening night at the Roxie run last Friday, May 25th, were the film’s director William Kaufman, actors and co-writers Holt Boggs and Matt Beckham, actor and associate producer Diana Lee Inosanto, co-producer Colby Mitchell, and editor/cameraman Russell White. Driving up from Los Angeles they got caught in holiday traffic and arrived late to our scheduled interview; but, once they introduced the film and got it going, we wandered down the street to Delirium for beer and informal conversation.

I was, of course, curious why it took San Francisco to give this film its U.S. theatrical distribution and Kaufman explained that, though released internationally in pretty much every country from the Middle East to Africa to Asia, the film was tied up domestically in rights disputes. It wasn’t until December that they re-secured their rights and groomed the film for DVD distribution.

Admittedly, “The Prodigy” is not for everyone. It’s a brutal ride, which in itself will satisfy an appetite for action and mayhem; but, to its credit, the film appeals on deeper levels. Its stylized violence is only the surface sheen. As an independent feature produced on a shoestring budget by nine first-time filmmakers, The Prodigy achieves a look and sound Film Threat claims is “as slick as any Hollywood lackluster.” It’s a must-see effort by anyone wanting to work outside the studio system. First-time cinematographer Mark Rutledge, sound designer Russell White, and fight choreographer Ron Balicki combined forces to create a visceral film dense with atmosphere.

But past its top notch production values, and what Variety’s Dennis Harvey terms its “pure creeps [and] combustive thrills,” “The Prodigy” masters the crime and horror genre formats in the tradition of Michael Mann, Walter Hill, and David Fincher, acknowledged influences on director Kaufman. I came to the Delirium discussion armed with a fascinating Flower Wild transcript of an examination by critics Chris Fujiwara, Mark Roberts, and Shinjiro Kinugasa regarding “Crime and the American Genre Film”; a must-read for aficionados of this genre.

The theme of their discussion is that cinematic citation is a form of theft — and the genre film is the result of quoting or even stealing elements from previous films. Confirming that Kaufman had indeed set out to make a genre film, he admitted his longstanding respect for the films of Michael Mann and — although “The Prodigy” deftly tips its hat to Mann’s “Manhunter” (1986) and “Heat” (1995) — the film most closely emulates Robert Harmon’s “The Hitcher” (1986) in its unflinching portrayal of evil as an unstoppable force of nature and its corrosive influence on the heart of an innocent; one might say its transfer of evil into the heart of an innocent.

There is likewise the obvious reference to Claude Rains in “The Invisible Man” (1933). Not only is the assassin in “The Prodigy” nicknamed Claude Rains but — like the scientist in James Whale’s classic — he has found a way to become invisible though, in doing so, has become murderously insane. Kaufman amplifies the citation by intentionally modeling his assassin’s wardrobe after that of Claude Rains in “The Invisible Man.”

Kaufman’s citations are not only cinematic, however. In his effort to create a criminal verisimilitude, the director chose several key locations due to their history of criminal activity. Their main location — the Denison Hotel in Denison, Texas — was reputedly a notorious hide out for famed bank robbers such as Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger. Those spectral influences lend a nefarious grittiness to the film’s atmosphere. Likewise, several of the thugs in the opening gun battle sequence were ex-cons. At one juncture, in fact, the producers had to verify that shooting the guns in the film didn’t interfere with any of their parole requirements.

Yet another point culled by Fujiwara, Roberts and Kinugasa is that the petty crooks depicted in the crime genre frequently rise above failed capers to reference and question the value of what’s being stolen and the social issue of who is stealing from whom. Certainly, they prompt us to question why the person is stealing, since money only has the power that we give it. An excellent example of this would be Alfred Hitchcock’s skilled misdirection in “Psycho,” where we are led to focus on Marion Crane’s theft of the money from her employer’s safe, only to have that same money wrapped up in a newspaper and tossed into the trunk of a car emptied into a local bog. Hitchcock has us recognize later that the concern with the money is not the real story; the real story is Norman Bates and his mother. Comparably in “The Prodigy,” the film’s opening sequence is a standoff between two rival gangs warring over money and drugs that devolves explosively into something altogether different. Assassin Claude Rains shows up during the ensuing gunfire to make clear that his interest is in neither the money nor the drugs; it’s the soul of Holt Boggs’ character Truman Fisher he’s after. After stalking Truman for years, he has appointed him a worthy successor to his reign of terror and anointed him with blood.

There’s also a citation here to a theme frequently explored in crime dramas; that of generational styles of criminal codes of honor. Like Lee Marvin in John Boorman’s “Point Blank” (1967), an “old-style” criminal comes in to “clean up” the petty thieves and less-accomplished criminals, reminding them how it’s really done. “The Prodigy’s” assassin does exactly that and, in the process, suggests to Truman Fisher parameters to his potential that he’d never considered.

At this juncture Kaufman invited Matt Beckham to inform the discussion since he was brought in as a co-writer to fill out Claude Rains’ backstory and to clarify his motivations. Beckham configures Rains as an ex-military man, possibly from Iraq, who has done things and seen things that have eventually driven him insane. In a way Rains is the perfect embodiment of a serial killer, Beckham explains. Specifically he has a Messiah complex that he projects out on the world to justify the dark deeds that he has done. As a young man he was a soldier who killed for his country. He looked for a way to justify the killing he did so well. His rage at a God who would allow such death turned darker still to embrace a vision of God which he himself created, a vision that allowed him to be God’s servant or — as Gnostic scholar Elaine Pagels might state it — God’s satan. The term “satan,” Pagels has written, referred to an angel sent from God to be an adversary to the righteous before it came to personify the Christian Devil. It’s at this level of “The Prodigy” that the film opens up into a provocative examination of the existential nature of evil; an examination that I think will ensure “The Prodigy’s” shelf life for years to come.

Confirming that Beckham had indeed considered the story of Job when characterizing Rains’ philosophy — most notably in the tagline “If God uses suffering to refine us; then why blame the Devil at all?” — the storyline of “The Prodigy” carries through. Presuming that Truman Fisher can carry on his “mission,” Rains sets out to destroy all emotional attachments that might prove as obstacles. He kills off Truman’s brother, his colleagues, eventually the woman he loves, to break down all physical and psychological resistance to the assignment at hand. “The Prodigy” becomes a whirlwind of a movie that denies protest against darkness, claiming evil to be inextricably intertwined with the good.

If the Christian imagery doesn’t suffice, Beckham incorporates Taoist imagery as well. Rains considers himself the black spot in the middle of the white in the Yin and Yang symbol, Beckham explains. Through his dark acts the white looks all the brighter. Good works its muscles and in his dark mind, he grows stronger by pushing back against the evil he does.

Finally, as Fujiwara, Roberts, and Kinugasa suggest, the world is made of glass. “This means two things,” they say, “it means that it’s very breakable, fragile, that you could fall through at any moment, but it also means that you can see through it, that surfaces are meant to be seen through.” The film’s final sequence of a corpse whose eye sockets have been inlaid with mirror shards seems specifically to address that most fundamentally disturbing of reflections.