By Isaac Feldberg (wegotthiscovered.com)
This is a repost of our review from the 2014 SXSW Film Festival.
Don’t pay any attention to its baffling, boring title – Two Step is actually a nasty and riveting little flick that, thanks to its excellent execution and fine performances, should land at the top of any self-respecting thriller junkie’s watchlist.
Two Step opens with James (Skyy Moore), a dopey guy in his early twenties who, after being kicked out of college, finds himself tasked with settling the affairs of his recently deceased grandmother. When James discovers that his beloved relative was being conned out of thousands by a criminal masquerading as him over the phone, he foolishly decides to try to track down the man, a rough customer named Webb (James Landry Hébert), and confront him on his own. When Webb unexpectedly shows up on his grandmother’s doorstep and realizes James’ identity, things go south fast. With Webb growing more violent by the minute and no help on the way, James quickly begins to understand just how dangerous a position he’s put himself in.
One of the things I really admire about Two Step is that it isn’t afraid to blaze its own trail. Though the film’s set up as a simple home invasion thriller, there’s a lot more going on than just James’ ordeal, and writer/director Alex R. Johnson is fully aware of that. So, he doesn’t just keep the spotlight on James. Instead, Johnson latches onto Webb, by far the more dramatically juicy character. The shift proves a highly intelligent choice, as Johnson is able to craft an almost excruciatingly tense storyline around Webb’s own journey while never neglecting James.
Johnson’s main players, including James, Webb and James’ grandmother’s dance instructor Dot (Beth Broderick), are all lost in their own lives, drifting from day to day without any discernible endgames. The screenplay is sometimes similarly aimless, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. By allowing his story to unfold organically and not forcing his characters to make ridiculous decisions so as to conform to genre tropes, Johnson succeeds in making Two Step feel surprisingly realistic, even (or is it especially?) when the bloodletting begins in earnest.
Johnson and editor Benjamin Moses Smith do a commendable job of establishing a breathless pace and holding it throughout the film. Two Step never eases back down into a lower gear after Webb and James first meet, so there’s hardly a dull moment. Johnson’s sound also helps. For one, he’s aided by a terrifically dexterous score by The American Analog Set and The Wooden Birds’ Andrew Kenney, who succeeds in creating some taut and engrossing numbers for the film. The director also incorporates gunshots and other sound effects perfectly, giving many of them a truly jarring impact that few thrillers achieve.
None of Two Step would work without a strong cast, and Johnson lucked out in that respect. Hébert is unquestionably the film’s biggest revelation. More than just looking the part, he plays the sadistic, screw-loose Webb as an unstable mess of nerves, frustrations and fears. He’s incredibly menacing, especially when Webb becomes of the mindset that he has nothing to lose, but Hébert also brings out the more human side of the character. It would have been easy to portray Webb as a cartoonish villain, but Hébert triumphs by making him disturbingly human.
Moore makes for a mostly sympathetic protagonist, and he’s able to convey a surprising amount even while slumped over in a chair. Though a few of the character’s decisions had me shaking my head, Moore turns in a believable and very respectable performance. As we first meet the character, he’s grieving for his grandmother’s death which, coupled with his recent expulsion from college, has led him to believe that he has no purpose in life. When Webb threatens his continued survival, however, James turns out to be a tenacious survivor, and Moore does a great job of communicating his transformation from disinterest to determination.
As dance instructor Dot, Broderick is made a little superfluous by the shift in focus to Webb, but the actress is a joy to watch in her scenes. The apparent ease with which she brings such a complex character to life is remarkable, and Broderick has such great chemistry with Moore that I wanted to see a separate movie about their budding relationship. In smaller roles, Jason Douglas is wonderfully malevolent as Webb’s hostile, uncompromising higher-up Duane, and Ashley Spillers roots her abused ex-girlfriend character in deep-set emotional pathos. Both get moments to shine, despite being asked to yield the spotlight to Hébert sooner or later.
The only real criticism I have of Two Step is that its ending arrives rather abruptly, and the film lacks all but the most basic of denouements. As a result, it feels as if Johnson flicks the lights out with little-to-no warning, and the hastiness of the film’s climax ends Two Step on a less-than-satisfactory note. For a film with so much mounting tension, I was (perhaps unfairly) expecting a more shattering conclusion. What Johnson has does work, and I was still thinking about it long after the credits rolled, but it’s less of a bang than us thriller aficionados have grown to expect.
Still, Johnson has crafted a brutal and compelling gem of a thriller, which boasts one of the strongest breakouts you’ll see at SXSW this year in James Landry Hébert. Make sure you check out Two Step; I can’t tell you why Johnson chose to handicap his excellent movie with such a lame name, but any thriller so effective that its title is the weakest link is really fine by me.