"Horseplayer" (selected theaters) is the L.A. minimalist movie at its best, a dry, deadpan psychological thriller that makes a virtue of its near no-budget. Kurt Voss, who co-wrote the witty road adventure "Delusion" and was one of the writer-directors of "Border Radio," is as unapologetic and resourceful a director as Edgar Ulmer when it comes to shooting an entire movie in primarily three settings.
Voss, who co-wrote "Horseplayer" with its producer, Larry Rattner, and David Birke, seems to know the local art scene as well he does the rock-music scene. M.K. Harris' Matthew and Sammi Davis' Randi are the kind of hip couple you might see at a La Luz de Jesus gallery opening: he has the lean, tall look of a Carradine brother and a nasty superior attitude; she's pretty and petite, with a muffled sense of decency. Matthew is a struggling artist, broke and lacking inspiration but with an important showing due in a couple of weeks; Randi is bright but in the cynical Matthew's thrall.
Newly moved into a mid-Wilshire apartment, they zero in on Bud (Brad Dourif), a clerk at the liquor store across the street, with a dual purpose: Randi is to seduce Bud not only to get money out of him but also to provide Matthew, via what she learns about Bud, with inspiration for his paintings. Posing as brother and sister, we soon realize that Matthew and Randi have preyed upon others before Bud; it's just this time they got a bit more than they bargained for.
What counts here is not plot but the film's exceedingly clear-eyed, often darkly amusing observation of the human psyche, so sharp and penetrating that we realize these three people are like countless others all over this city. Here's Matthew, determined to be on the cutting edge at any price; Bud, a solitary young man with a deeply troubled past, intent upon maintaining a precarious mental balance, devoting his spare time to playing the horses systematically.
Underplayed so effectively by Dourif, Bud deserves to be left alone to continue working out his isolated destiny, which he has cut down to a size he feels he can manage. He knows how to resist his crude, insensitive but sometimes well-meaning boss (the late Vic Tayback), who's always urging him to lighten up, but he's vulnerable to Matthew and Randi's determined scheming.
"Horseplayer's" spare, hard-edged look and mood are reflected perfectly in cinematographer Dean Lent's harsh photo-realist lighting and in Gary Schyman's edgy score, augmented by some numbers by the Pixies.
Images and music and the film's overall tone bear the mark of an intensely au courant alternative cinema, yet "Horseplayer" (Times-rated mature for language, considerable sex, some violence) is in fact sustained by the old-fashioned virtues of solid writing, inspired direction and exceptional, well-sustained acting on the part of Dourif, Davis and Harris.
Brad Dourif: Bud Cowan
Sammi Davis: Randi
M.K. Harris: Matthew
Vic Tayback: George
A Greycat Films release. Director Kurt Voss. Producer Larry Rattner. Executive producers Robert M. Nau, Daryl Jamison. Screenplay by Voss, Rattner & David Birke. Cinematographer Dean Lent. Editor John Rosenberg. Costumes Elisabeth A. Scott. Music Gary Schyman. Additional music The Pixies. Art director Steve Karman. Sound William B. Weir. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
Times-rated Mature (language, sex, some violence).