The last film I saw at this year’s Toronto Film Festival is also set to play Fantastic Fest in Austin, with the first screening set for this coming Sunday night. While a festival like Toronto is packed with so many giant titles that are given full publicity pushes by the studios releasing them, frequently drowning out anything anyone might write about smaller films, Fantastic Fest seems devoted to finding and showcasing the small gems. I expect “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” will do very well there, and I hope a canny distributor picks up this smart, brutal neo-noir, because it deserves an audience.
Written by Dutch Southern and directed by Simon and Zeke Hawkins, “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” tells a very familiar story in terms of the broad strokes. Sue (Mackenzie Davis) and B.J. (Logan Huffman) are a couple, which puts Bobby (Jeremy Allen White) in a tough spot. He’s best friends with B.J., but he is madly in love with Sue. They all live in a very small Texas town, which means there’s not a lot they can do to entertain themselves, leaving plenty of time for bad ideas. Both Bobby and Sue plan to leave for college just as soon as they can, and B.J. is starting to realize he’s going to get left behind. One weekend, just for kicks, B.J. steals a fat stack of cash from the safe of Giff (Mark Pellegrino), the guy he and Bobby work for, and that sets off a chain of events that could destroy the fragile peace that they’ve all been working so hard to maintain.
There’s a scene early on where Bobby and Sue are talking about books, which she’s always trying to to get him to read, and they talk about Jim Thompson and the way his plots work. I find it’s always a pretty fine line in terms of what will or won’t pull me out of a movie when it comes to characters talking about pop culture, and this is exactly the right amount. It acknowledges the larger tradition of storytelling that this is part of, and it also sort of calls the shot, like Babe Ruth pointing over the wall before hitting a home run. Right from the start of the film, you have a pretty good idea of where things are headed, but not exactly how they’ll get there.
Jeff Bierman’s photography expertly captures the hot and dusty feel of a small Texas town, and considering how small the film is overall, it never feels claustrophobic. Things escalate nicely over the course of the film, and there is a creeping sense of dread that is carefully calibrated. Mackenzie Davis has a lanky Keira Knightley thing going on, and it’s fascinating to see how she appears to be totally different people depending on which angle they shoot her from. Playing a woman who is caught between two men is not an easy trick to pull off when it comes to audience sympathies, but Davis pulls it off, showing how she gets different things from the two guys without ever articulating it completely. White seems perpetually worried about an impending beating, and Huffman seems constantly on the verge of doling that beating out, and the three of them all do a good job of making it all feel very natural and well-observed, even when the film is playing by genre rules.
More than anything, this is a great showcase for what the Hawkins brothers can do on a very tight budget. This is not a large film in any way, but it never feels like a small one because they play to their limitations, not against them. Southern’s script is, thankfully, not trying to deconstruct or reinvent the genre, and it is remarkably unfussy about what it does. It hits all the beats you’d expect from this sort of thing, but it doesn’t feel mechanical about it.
“We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” is a real pleasure, and it has one of the great last lines of the year. I can’t wait to see who picks this up, and I hope you get a chance to see it sooner rather than later.