On bloodless violence, chaste strip clubs, and the perpetual cognitive dissonance of Kin
Director: Jonathan Baker and Josh Baker
Screenplay: Daniel Casey, based on the short film Bag Man, by Jonathan Baker and Josh Baker
Starring: Myles Truitt, Jack Reynor, Zoë Kravitz, James Franco, Dennis Quaid, Romano Orzari, Ian Matthews and Carrie Coon
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 42 minutes / 2.39:1
August 31, 2018
(out of four)
At some point during the production of Kin, somebody - most likely at the studio level - thought, "This is a kids' movie." And while I'm sure this notion was communicated to some of the people involved in making the film, the message certainly didn't get through to everyone. Kin's left hand thought it was making a legitimate crime thriller, while the right hand thought it was a youthful, adventurous lark. The left hand took the events of the story seriously, and embraced their most serious consequences; the right hand was careful to keep teen summer audiences in mind.
And so we are left with this inexplicable product, a coming-of-age road movie that keeps trying to pretend it's not as serious, dangerous and consequential as it so obviously is. This is a movie with a high body count. It's a movie with massacres and murdered parents and strip clubs and criminal undergrounds. It is also rated PG-13, and as such keeps confronting its adult material while simultaneously shying away from it. It starts with a mysterious, highly advanced weapon in an abandoned building surrounded by charred bodies - both gun and bodies discovered by 14-year-old Eli (Myles Truitt) - and yet somehow proceeds to treat death (specifically death-by-highly-advanced-weapon) as an abstract notion rather than a reality, and an inevitability. This is a movie with cognitive dissonance.
Directors Jonathan and Josh Baker adapted their own 2014 short, Bag Man, which had a similar disconnect - an oddly casual approach to violence. In Bag Man, the kid - played by Judah Bellamy - takes a group of bad men and their hooded captive by surprise in a rural clearing they surely thought they had to themselves. Rather than simply brandish his new toy as a threat (having already demonstrated its capability by blasting the hell out of their car), the kid blows them all away, saving the captive's life in a strangely dispassionate exercise. The short film's uncertain attitude is forgivable if only because the whole thing seemed more like a proof of concept than anything else - certainly not the kind of finished product that had figured out how to deal with its premise on psychological or emotional terms. It was simply a demonstration.
But it became a full-length feature, and the uncertainty metastasized into a more thorough internal contradiction. Whether that was the result of a contractual obligation to make an accessible PG-13 movie or competing impulses on the part of the filmmakers themselves is anyone's guess. In any case, the disconnect is a conspicuous one.
Kin is made with skill, if not aesthetic inspiration. There's real polish to the Bakers' filmmaking - it often comes across as a credible crime thriller, taking enough James Cameron cues to stage a convincing imitation of The Terminator's police-station shootout - and in Kin's best moments it feels remarkably comfortable in its own skin. Except that feeling never lasts too long; a scene or a key moment is always quick to come along and undermine the film's mood - either the gritty crime angle undermines the more lighthearted attitude or vice versa. If those contradictions had been resolved ahead of time, it would've made a world of difference.
It's not as if thought wasn't put into this thing. Quite the opposite: At the end of the movie (no spoilers), a legit movie star shows up in a surprise cameo and not only resolves a lingering plot detail but opens up an entirely new vision behind Eli and the weapon he has come to possess. A background, a future, a full-fledged mythology. Clearly there were plans for this thing, well beyond a single movie. And yet the way Kin constantly disagrees with itself practically guaranteed those future plans would never see the light of day. No wonder Lionsgate buried this thing at the end of August with no fanfare. It's not that this is a bad movie - it's that it's the wrong movie. Or half of the wrong movie, anyway.
As for the specifics: Eli's possession of the hyper-advanced weapon is, at least to begin with, the least of everyone's concerns. The more pressing issues begin and end with Eli's brother Jimmy (Jack Reynor), who's just returned home from a stint in prison. Jimmy's trying to keep a tenuous peace at home with his strict and disapproving father Hal (Dennis Quaid) - a peace that evaporates once Jimmy confesses that he still owes a lot of money to a local, mid-level crime boss who protected him in prison. To Hal, the request for a lucrative loan that he can't afford is just further evidence that Jimmy hasn't changed his ways. He doesn't appreciate quite how serious a villain his son is dealing with. When he does find out, it's too late; Dad's dead, the bad guys are pissed, and Eli and Jimmy are on the run with a ton of cash and a big-ass gun. The crime boss, Taylor (played by James Franco), is not shy about his malevolence, nor his strict code of vengeance. He'll either kill Jimmy or die trying.
Eli, of course, isn't privy to all this. Jimmy decides to Life is Beautiful his adopted brother for as long as he can - not just about the details of his criminal connections but even about their father's death. He insists they're on a road trip to Lake Tahoe and that Hal will meet them there in a few days. Fine. Except this road trip quickly turns into a crime spree - notably when Jimmy becomes aware of what Eli's been hiding in that backpack. Kin's ensuing ambivalence about how to handle this - in particular, how Eli's sense of awareness affects the film's tone - prevents it from ever being able to plausibly establish its own terms. Eli's not a little kid - he's a smart, perceptive 14-year-old. He knows exactly what he's doing when his brother asks him to point his extremely lethal weapon at a group of armed criminals at an illegal card game, and his brother knows the risks of a 14-year-old boy being in a room with a group of armed criminals, let alone threatening them with a gun he may or may not know how to use. Kin wants to frame this as a light, mischievous caper, even after the film has clearly established how serious it is about death. Make up your mind.
Another extended scene takes place in a strip club, where Jimmy and Eli throw their cash around and enjoy the performances of a staff of perpetually clothed strippers. It's here that they meet the woman who will become the third member of their party - Milly (Zoë Kravitz), a dancer at said strip club. Now, to avoid any misunderstanding: I am not creepily objecting to the lack of nudity. This is not a Jeff Wells blog post. I'm saying that a decision was made to set this scene at a strip club, and that a second decision was made to make this a PG-13 movie. This is Kin's identity crisis in microcosm. What I'm saying is: Don't set a 15-minute sequence in a strip club if you're making a PG-13 movie about a 14-year-old kid. If you're committing to R-rated crime-drama material, fine. Otherwise, set your scene elsewhere. Set the scene in a bar and make Milly a bartender. Set the scene in a nightclub and make Milly a singer. Anything.
Kin is reasonably well-crafted and well-performed and it has its own notions about genre. But it never solves its internal credibility gap. It feels like what would happen is someone tried to turn A Perfect World and The Wizard into a single entity. There were two possible versions of this movie, and the filmmakers refused to pick one or the other.