I want so badly to love this movie and I do love parts of it…desperately. Hail comes to Fantastic Fest 2012 from Australia, directed by Amiel Courtin-Wilson. It is based on the main character, Daniel P. Jones‘ life and many challenging experiences. Leanne Letch, who went through many of these incidents along with Jones throughout his life, is also in the film. Both Letch and Jones play themselves and relive incidents from their past during the course of Hail, a risky move which pays off in the authenticity of the performances throughout. This isn’t a typical docu-drama, as some of the more intense moments did not actually occur. The movie is filmed in gritty close-up that is highly stylized but in no way clean or kind to its subjects, rather exposing every flaw, pore and in that the true beauty. The harsh hues and high tension sound track create an environment in which one can only get lost in Daniel’s head and go along with him as he descends into his own personal hell.
Hail brings us to the brink and beyond with Daniel P. Jones’ amazing performance. We meet Daniel as he is being released from prison back to the arms of his ladylove Leanne. The two have a very sweet reunion and we begin to feel a connection to the two of them immediately. I felt myself cautiously rooting for Daniel and Leanne to make it through whatever lie ahead, certain that they were doomed, ultimately not knowing how their singular or partnered demise would present itself. Daniel makes an attempt to assimilate back into society on the straight and narrow, as he is tired of spending his time behind bars and is ready at this later stage of life to give it all up and live the life Leanne wants. The attempt doesn’t last long, it is difficult to tell if Daniel sabotages himself or is legitimately injured when he is given an opportunity to work at a local body shop, but injured he is. After his injury Daniel has an excuse to return to crime, despite Leanne’s desperate attempts to convince him otherwise. We follow Daniel back in to dark rooms and corners where he sells the fruits of his regression and withdraws further into himself, expressing a dark side we have yet to see. When Leanne watches Daniel turn back to his old ways, she decides it’s time for her to contribute as well and after reconnecting with an old (albeit criminal) friend, things go from bad to worse. This is a story of lost peace, lost hope and lost love. Courtin and Jones show us what nothing left to live for really looks like in the hands of a man on the edge.
This is a film for art-house junkies and plays as such. The passion and rage emanating from Daniel are palpable, the desperation and eagerness from Leanne is heartbreaking. It is difficult to keep in mind these people are not seasoned actors, or professional actors of any kind. What they bring to the screen and this story is first hand experience and raw emotion. It also brings moments that a lot of people will find tedious. The film begins exceptionally slowly with long periods of silence, little to no action as Daniel settles back in to his life. Part of the point of this is to set the tone of peace and share Daniels need for this stillness after coming home from a harrowing experience in prison, but while the simple things that haven’t been part of Daniel’s life are important, these moments go on just long enough to lose the audience’s interest and frustrate even the most patient among us. Similarly, there are moments later in the film in which the grating soundtrack that perfectly embodies Daniels descent into crazed rage unfortunately goes on long enough to become irritating. Rather than the aggravation making it easier to empathize with Daniel, the irritation is directed at the film itself. Away from the theater, removed from the immediate experience, I know Hail is an amazing piece of work. This realization doesn’t erase the exasperation I and others around me felt at the moments that seem to mean so much to the filmmakers, though as the audience all we wanted was to be immersed in the strikingly painful story being told.
I feel very strongly about Hail. Many will disagree with my feeling that this was a genius experiment and a fantastic story. Not to mention performances that were captured beautifully and portrayed truthfully. Still others will disagree with my estimation of the overreaching attempts to manipulate the audience or draw them in to the film’s mood. What it comes down to is this…Hail is a polarizing film. Most will either love it or hate it and there will be a few, like me, who appreciate what the filmmakers were attempting, but don’t agree that their actions had favorable impact on the film. I believe this experiment was ultimately a success and recommend Hail as a must see film, with the understanding you may have to work a little through the experience to really settle into it. I have passion for this film, though I am disappointed knowing the excruciatingly slow moments, and the overly extended artistic attempts may detract from a story which is so genuinely, simply beautiful and raw that it makes my heart ache just to think about it.
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