MOVIE REVIEW : Fire and Ice Fuel a Low-Budget, High-Intensity 'Patti Rocks'

In David Burton Morris' "Patti Rocks" (Westside Pavilion), we're plunged, with an icy smack, into a milieu that seems both passing strange and as real as a next-door argument. This low-budget film rivets your attention immediately, using nothing more complicated than the real world and two seemingly real people racing through it toward a third.

In the first part, we're under a mean sky on a cold road, in a car hurtling toward a distant Midwestern city. The talk inside has the jagged flow of a wild river alive with roiling scum. Reunited lifelong buddies Billy Regis (Chris Mulkey) and Eddie Hassit (John Jenkins) are on their way to patch up another of Billy's extramarital sexual scrapes: His latest inamorata, Patti Rocks (Karen Landry), has gotten pregnant.

Billy, one-time voracious garage mechanic stud, thinks he's been had. He's full of rage, spite and meanly jocular misogynist badinage. Eddie--whose wife and son have left him, whose hair has gone gray and whose life seems gray too--listens with a mix of amusement and uneasiness. Outside it's cold, dark, flat: purgatory with truck stops. Inside, Billy's vile, scatological chatter boils out like grease spattering blank walls.

As Billy profanely rails, he cauterizes some of his own pain and confusion, stirs up Eddie's. For this brief moment, the men are boys again--Billy's charm and his curse--fleeing not toward the territory ahead, but toward a pregnant woman and reckoning.

Billy and Eddie are two characters whom Morris, Mulkey, Jenkins--and producer-writer Victoria Wozniak (Morris' wife)--invented 12 years ago for a low-budget, Minneapolis-based film called "Loose Ends." In that film, Billy was the force continually pulling Eddie away from home; finally they tried a dumb, aborted flight to Denver, like on-the-road parodies of Kerouac and Cassady. Echoes of "Loose Ends" play all through "Patti Rocks": mention of Eddie's absent wife and son, his dog Howard, John Dillinger's endowments, pool, the way the two playfully toss a hat around.

In the monochrome "Loose Ends," all the actors were good, but Mulkey was brilliant--full of raw spontaneity and jumpy, hyperactive grace. Here, in cinematographer/producer/editor Gregory Cummins' more elegant Robby Muller-style color, Mulkey's just as good; so are Jenkins and Landry (Mulkey's real-life wife).

"Patti Rocks" is a minimalist realist film which does several things extremely well. It renders the reality of this fugitive 40-ish pair and gives us their gutter lingo with harsh verisimilitude. Like many similar independent films, it opens up some private pain, confronts you with something flawed, but human. It's a nice, gutty little film--not great, but admirable, tight, well played. It's full of the life that more expensive movies usually leach out.

Nothing is touched up here. Morris, Mulkey and Jenkins are obviously dredging up the worst in themselves. Perhaps that's a problem: Billy--who represents something vital yet shameful in their lives, whose sexual attitudes they find reprehensible--gets too automatic a comeuppance. Condemnation would have sufficed.

You feel cold throughout this film. Cummins gets the feel of the land, the way the light in Midwestern winters smarts your eyes. At the end, in the more tender sections in Patti's bedroom, when she confronts the two--a moment beautifully captured by Landry--the coldness still seeps through, raw, wounding. In a way, that's the film's metaphor: the cold cutting through, a stormy river roaring along, a road leading to nowhere, an idiotic dance on a false, decaying image of manhood.

"Patti Rocks" (MPAA rated R for nudity, sex and unusually graphic language), which soars in Mulkey's best moments, is a funny film with a terrifying undercurrent that occasionally breaks through, like light tearing through a barely patched wall. 'PATTI ROCKS'

A FilmDallas Pictures presentation. Producers Gwen Field, Gregory Cummins. Director David Burton Morris. Script Chris Mulkey, John Jenkins, Karen Landry, Morris. Photographer/editor Gregory Cummins. Music Doug Maynard. With Mulkey, Jenkins, Landry.

Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.

MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).

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