Bullitt County (2018)
Set in 1977, a few longtime friends gather together for a bachelor party of sorts for recovering alcoholic Vietnam vet Gordie (Mike C. Nelson, Minutes Past Midnight), taking a trip they’ve taken in their younger days before, going through the Kentucky Bourbon Trail for distilleries they frequented that may or may not still be there. Gordie, though, will not be partaking of the local beverage of choice due to his ten years of sobriety, spurred on by an incident they were all involved in a decade prior. Gordie has something else on his mind while here’s there in that neck of the woods: a legendary treasure said to be buried way off the beaten path on private property owned by the Bullitt family, who hid the cash they had made illegally through the production and sales of that bourbon during the era of Prohibition. Along for the ride are his supportive friends, Robin (Jenni Melear, Your Friends Close) and Keaton (played by writer-director David McCracken), and Gordie’s newer friend Wayne (Napoleon Ryan, The Master), who all find their bonds of friendship tested when their search for the cash goes south.
Bullitt County is a halfway predictable dramatic thriller, but sometimes deceptively so. Some viewers will no doubt come to early conclusions on how everything is going to play out, only for McCracken to offer a couple of other twists that subvert some of the others that seem inevitable. As with many films of this ilk, even if you know the destination, or think you do, you can still enjoy the ride along the way. It is handsomely presented, especially for a period piece, and setting the film in the 1970s not only taps into the themes involving Vietnam veterans, but also on the psychological dramas that were released in the era, from Deliverance to Taxi Driver to The Deer Hunter.
Shot in small part in Kentucky and a larger part in New Harmony, Indiana (writer-director David McCracken and producer (and good friend) Josh Riedford hail from Evansville, Indiana), the film builds upon our fears, mostly stoked from thrillers not far from the tone of this effort, that there are those who live in the back country that have more than a few skeletons buried out there, and a network of family and other close-to-kin friends who aim to keep anyone from interfering with their history and way of life. McCracken effectively taps into the long-standing bourbon industry of Kentucky and its rich history going back any generations, such that it seems plausible to believe that there might be a protective culture among those who’ve kept the money from the production in the family for decades. It’s even more unnerving when there appears to be no ready presence of the law anywhere around, and given the late 1970s setting, no cell phones to which to use as a lifeline, and no way to use Google to instantly uncover basic facts and history that could easily keep them informed as to what’s right and what’s B.S. around the rural areas.
McCracken does a nice job in setting up the characters and rounding them out before things begin to take a more sinister turn down the road. Perhaps the characters are a bit on the idealized side to fully buy them more as real people than they are as movie characters, but it is nice to have some explanation for their various behaviors later in the film, giving us more of a psychological look at the dynamics of the friendships than one that plays on emotional bonds meant to capture our fears on what might happen to them when they are faced with mortal peril from the locals that might be around to make sure that what’s buried stays buried.
Tarantino-esque dialogue breaks out among the friends from time to time, as they discuss James Joyce, Batman, and other topics both heady and banal. Split-screen action will also remind some of Tarantino (who, in turn, borrowed the technique from Brian De Palma), especially in how the tenser scenes are edited and constructed. Those Batman references abound in the character names (Keaton, Robin, Wayne, Gordie (like Commissioner Gordon, though his full name of ‘Gordie Solomon’ is also similar to DC comics villain Solomon Grundy), while Joyce aficionados will appreciate the several allusions and the way his works tie in thematically to the proceedings. Some will also be reminded of the Coen Brothers in the vibe of the film’s humor, as well as the offbeat characterizations, in helping even the non-thriller aspects stay entertaining to observe.
Acting is an asset, especially with the strong and widely ranged turn delivered from Mike C. Nelson, who exhibits much of his performance even when he isn’t saying anything at all. Nelson had the experience of working with McCracken in his first film, OstrichLand, which he made for his USC graduate thesis and was an acclaimed, award-winning film in various film festivals in several countries. In his eyes, one can always see the look of being perpetually conflicted — kindness and rage, inner peace and regret, finding resolve and carrying unspoken desires — the destructive forces that he could never quite keep in check when he had been as a bitter alcoholic before going sober ten years prior. Jenni Melear is also quite good as the well-read and attractive friend that Gordie has always carried a torch for, and one that he can’t quite reveal fully, for fear of yet another one of life’s crushing disappointments coming to light. David McCracken, whose natural screen presence as an actor is rare for someone who works primarily a writer and director, appears as a major player within his own film as Keaton, whose frugality about the cost of everything probably was the same on and off the screen, as he also directed and wrote Bullitt County, which had a very modest Kickstarter-fueled budget he always had to keep in mind at all times.
Although aspects of the film are meant to play as terrifying, Bullitt County remains in the realm of a drama with strong thriller elements throughout, teasing but never dipping into the kind of grindhouse horror that so many that have traveled the same dusty and desolate road have done in the past. When the film shifts from drama to thriller, that may be the make-or-break point for some viewers’ interests, as the turn isn’t without some narrative turbulence in tone. Bullitt Country can seem uneven when the edges are pushed, perhaps intentionally so, given the unsettling narrative, but it maintains interest despite its occasional unnatural moments due to the quality of the writing, as well as the commitment of the actors to flesh out those characters enough for us to care about how it all resolves.
Though the film is small-scale, it does boast nice technical specs to make it a professional work, with terrific cinematography from Sean McDaniel, and a complementary score credited to Aaron Riedford, the musically talented brother of the producer (both members of a Jewish folk-rock band named Kippah Groovin’ — a multi-talented collection of family and friends all around). Even if the film is modest in scope, it exceeds the limitations through a talented cast and crew, with a great eye for detail, especially given the difficult task of trying to set the film forty years ago. If you enjoyed recent thrillers like Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin and Green Room, you should definitely give Bullitt County a look. It packs enough ammo to hit its target as a thoughtful and retrospective throwback to the gritty but darkly humorous character-driven crime dramas of yesteryear.
Qwipster’s rating: B
MPAA Rated: Not rated as of this writing, but would definitely be R for strong bloody violence, sexual references, drug use and language
Running Time: 98 min.
Cast: Mike C. Nelson, Jenni Melear, David McCracken, Napoleon Ryan, Richard Riehle, Dorothy Lyman, Alysia Livingston
Director: David McCracken
Screenplay: David McCracken