A Dire, Deft Story of Junkie Lifesavers
Movies don’t get much more corrosive or gripping than Scott Ziehl’s high-energy first feature, “Broken Vessels,” which finds a young man (Jason London) from a small town running from a dark secret and landing a job in L.A. as a paramedic. London’s naive Tom, seeking redemption in helping others, could not have made a worse choice, for his excitable, profit-minded new boss (James Hong) teams him with star ambulance driver Jimmy (Todd Field), a crackerjack paramedic on crack--and just about every other illegal drug known to man.
When we meet Jimmy he’s riding high, in all senses of the word. Drugs at once give Jimmy an edge and numb him from the pain he’s witnessed the last five years. They also shield him from the knowledge that he’s stuck in a low-paying yet highly demanding job and never going to make it into the Los Angeles Police Department; cops, in his view, have all the power and prestige. Jimmy easily seduces Tom into his danger-embracing lifestyle, for in the well-meaning Tom, hidden guilt outweighs his urge to stick to the straight and narrow, making him vulnerable to all the horrors he witnesses on the job and the drugs that obliterate those horrors and the past along with it.
Jimmy exudes self-confidence and self-control; he’s a fast but skilled driver, a drug user who knows when to quit and who has become as addicted to his job as to drugs. Tom, on the other hand, proceeds swiftly into a downward spiral, but as he goes plummeting you have to start wondering just how long Jimmy will be able to maintain any semblance of balance in his frenetic life.
Ziehl and his co-writers make a screen full of people come alive, not just Jimmy and Tom and their money-grubbing boss. Tom soon learns since the age of 13 Jimmy has lived off and on with his longtime heroin-addicted grandfather (Patrick Cranshaw), whom he keeps supplied now that the old man is living in a retirement home. Susan Traylor is Jimmy’s speed-freak neighbor, alternately amusing and pathetic in her manic behavior, and Roxana Zal is the gentle, caring nurse Tom attracts but all too easily loses. The actors, including the ever-reliable William Smith in a cameo, are all on the money in their portrayals in exceptionally well-drawn roles, crackling with pungent dialogue. In major, demanding roles London and Field are especially impressive.
Field has a deceptive facade of all-American clean-cut looks that allows him to suggest a wide range of emotions and thoughts behind such a regular-guy appearance; in “Ruby in Paradise” he expressed such uncommon decency and intelligence you had to wonder how Ashley Judd’s hardscrabble Ruby could ever have considered letting him get away. In “Eyes Wide Shut” he’s the likable med school dropout turned saloon piano player, and here he’s an increasingly raging sociopath. In all these roles Field has the precious gift of being able to surprise you and to command your attention on screen.
“Broken Vessels” could take Ziehl far. It has that kind of kinetic energy that fuses style and theme, as Tom and Jimmy careen through L.A. streets both in answer to emergency calls and in pursuit of a fix. In Antonio Calvache, Ziehl has an ace cinematographer who can generate visceral impact with panache yet switch mood and tempo with ease; he captures a fresh slice of lowdown L.A. that is always visually enticing. The scorching sound of the score composed by Field and others plus music chosen by music supervisor Tracy McKnight complement the film throughout. No wonder “Broken Vessels” walked off with the audience prize at the 1998 Los Angeles Independent Film Festival.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong and continuous drug use, language, sexuality and violence. Times guidelines: The film, for all the reasons cited by MPAA plus its array of images of people injured or killed in traffic accidents and other mishaps, is entirely unsuitable for children.
Todd Field: Jimmy
Jason London: Tom
Roxana Zal: Elizabeth
Susan Traylor: Susy
James Hong: Mr. Chen
Patrick Cranshaw: Gramps
A Unapix Films/Zeitgeist Films release. Director Scott Ziehl. Producers Roxana Zal, Ziehl. Screenplay by David Baer, John McMahon, Ziehl. Cinematographer Antonio Calvache. Editors David Moritz, Chris Figler. Music Bill Lazwell, Marty Blasich, Brent Fraser and Todd Field. Music supervisor Tracy McKnight. Costumes Roseanne Fielder. Production designer Rodrigo Castillo. Art director Kristen Gilmartin. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
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