At The Picture Show
A slice of hell
On bad pizza, framed killers and the supernatural machinations of local real-estate deals
Director: Austin Vesely
Screenplay: Austin Vesely
Starring: Zazie Beetz, Chance Bennett, Rae Gray, Paul Scheer, Tim Decker, Austin Vesely, Katherine Cunningham, Lakin Valdez, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Will Brill and Y'lan Noel
Rated R / 1 hour, 23 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
Come to think of it, why hasn't there been a good pizza-themed slasher movie? The opportunity is so self-evident that perhaps we've simply taken it for granted. A bit of rudimentary research (read: much more time spent looking up obscure titles than I reasonably should have) uncovers a handful of movies (mostly shorts) that stumbled upon the same shared terminology as did Austin Vesely's Slice. But none yet has become our definitive celebration of the dual slicing of necks and pizzas. It's bound to happen eventually. There will one day be a great movie about a serial-killing pizza delivery boy, so help me God.
If there's a more noteworthy title I'm missing, I'd be happy to have it brought to my attention. Especially as it could divert said attention away from Slice, a giant false start of a movie that only occasionally feels like a professional effort. Even the linguistic kinship implied in the title is a façade; there's no wit to the connection beyond the surface wordplay. The pizza parlor that is the fulcrum of the film's action is only that: a location. That there's apparently a killer on the loose - and that this killer chooses a blade of some kind as the weapon of choice - is mostly incidental to the fact of the parlor's existence. Yes, the delivery people are the ones (initially) getting bumped off, but that's more a convenient link than a relevant detail.
And so the full-bodied premise that even a moderately clever artist may have thought up never actually emerges in Slice. The title is an opening line that never turns into an idea. Rarely has our collective "I see what you did there" been so inconsequential. In this sense it reminds me of 2015's Cooties, which took the idea of grade-school children infecting each other and attacking adults and turned it into the most ordinary (at best) zombie scenario possible.
There are no zombies in Slice, but there are ghosts and witches and werewolves; its slasher angle, however, is just fodder for a backstage real-estate narrative that ties together the killings, the pizza joint, and the half-assed police procedural encompassing both. The whole thing is loopy and clever enough on paper, but Vesely doesn't demonstrate any real grasp of his own material. The werewolves are the film's big selling point - or one werewolf, rather. A mythic, presumptive outlaw named Dax Lycander is the prime suspect for the killings, a theory pushed mostly by Detective Marsh (Tim Decker), who seems to have a thing against this particular werewolf, if not all werewolves in general. Bigot. In any case, this is the film's selling point because Dax is played by Chance the Rapper (billed as Chance Bennett) in his feature-film debut. Vesely has directed a handful of Bennett's music videos, so the partnership makes sense; but even though Bennett is top-billed on the poster, the role is a small one and the movie wouldn't have been substantially different without it, so the whole thing smells like stunt casting.
Not the worst crime in the world, by any means, but probably a more acceptable one if the movie weren't otherwise a complete waste of a talented cast. Bennett's presence isn't worth the stunt casting; his acting limitations are nakedly exposed whenever he has to deliver a lot of dialogue. He's fine in moments - individual line readings and reaction shots - but when he actually has to help carry a scene he's practically a non-entity.
The closest we get to a fleshed-out character is Astrid - a former Perfect Pizza employee who gets her job back for the sole purpose of investigating the murders - but that fleshing-out is mostly an illusion created by the presence of burgeoning star Zazie Beetz (Atlanta, Deadpool 2), the kind of actress who always seems fully possessed of her purpose even when the movie around her isn't.
It's Astrid's ex-boyfriend, Sean, whose death in the opening scene kicks things into gear. (Sean, who appears as a ghost in later scenes, is played by Vesely himself, a sort of Lou Taylor Pucci / Owen Campbell type.) And all his former co-workers - including the parlor's owner, Jack (Paul Scheer) - take Astrid's lead and spring into action, determined to figure out their beloved workplace's role in all this. Sean's trail leads to a drug dealer who was using Sean (a heavy user himself, which seems to be at the root of his breakup with Astrid) and his door-to-door, delivery-boy bonafides to move his own product. The dealer is Big Cheese (Insecure and The First Purge's Y'lan Noel), who shows up for two scenes and is otherwise ignored - another in a long list of narrative threads that Vesely introduces without really knowing what to do with. There's a plucky newspaper reporter, too, if you can believe it.
Which is not to say the first-time filmmaker doesn't stumble upon some workable ideas. The matter-of-fact existence of ghosts (with entire neighborhoods to themselves, no less) in this town's day-to-day reality - generally they're treated as a sort of harmless nuisance, at least until people start pointing fingers at them for the murder spree - pays off nicely once the dastardly plot, which stretches to the highest levels of the (local) government, reveals itself. But generally speaking, Vesely is unable to transform all the dark and mystic and conspiratorial corners of his haunted small-town into anything remotely cohesive, nor aesthetically distinct. There's a low-budget, supernaturally tinged horror-comedy or two released every week of the year; Slice garnered attention - and an A24 stamp of approval - because of Chance the Rapper's presence, but otherwise deserves little consideration given all the similarly mediocre movies that go ignored on a weekly basis. A few years from now when Zazie Beetz has a couple Oscar nominations and a solo franchise under her belt, this will make for an amusing footnote.
The most curiously distinctive thing about Slice is the various borrowed phrases from Gangs of New York that pepper its screenplay. So if it's been a long time since you've heard one guy call another guy a "meatheaded shitsack," this is your lucky day.
You can contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more by Chris Bellamy