I've been thinking a lot about life late. I'm a 50+-year-old film journalist with a full-time gig that covers the bills. I was born with spina bifida and have lived years beyond what anyone ever expected with a quality of life that has far surpassed even my own wildest dreams.
I have bladder cancer now, a special gift directly resulting from living far too long with spina bifida.
I've lived a dark life, at least at times, and have lost more than a few loved ones to violence including both wife and daughter.
I'm not easy to know. I'm not easy to want to know. I'm nearly impossible to hate because, despite everything, I'm a good guy who tries hard to make a difference in the world and through a combination of effort and luck I've never given too much voice to my dark side.
I had to chuckle as I read Derek Presley's "Director Statement" for his latest feature film Tonic in which he describes the journey for writing the film by saying "The last feature I made was an all-out action film with a body count up to twelve. Our hero unapologetically blasted his way out of the third act, emotionally unscathed. After that film, I began to wonder, could someone like me do that? Probably not."
That's the chuckle for me. "Probably" not.
There's always a disclaimer. That's what I believe. There's always something that could push us over to our darkest voices even if we never actually get pushed that way. For most of us, the "probably" will never happen.
Tonic is, essentially, about the others. The ones for whom a "probably" becomes a maybe or a likely or a conscious choice that has to be made. The anti-hero we meet here, Sebastian Poe (Billy Blair), isn't necessarily a bad guy but he's also not an innocent. He's a strung-out jazz pianist with a drug debt to a crooked cop, Terry Rush (Jason Coviello), and a sister, Elise (Lori Petty), who's living with cancer and really kind of needs him to get his act together.
That's an awful lot of pressure for someone who can't handle pressure.
Filmed largely in the cultural district of Dallas known as Deep Ellum, Tonic looks and feels like a siren symphony and intoxicated crowds who are both escaping for a drink or drinking for an escape. It looks like the kind of place I would hang with its dimly lit neon lights, wafting music in the air, and people who are friendly even if it's not always for the right reasons.
We meet Sebastian. We like him, though we have a weird feeling we shouldn't. He's trouble to himself and everyone around him not because he wants to be but because it's the deck he's been dealt and it's the only game he knows how to play.
So he plays.
Tonic will make you think of films like After Hours and others like it. It's a fair comparison. Writer/director Derek Presley does a nice job of making the familiar yet engaging story its own cinematic beast. Deep Ellum helps.
The crux of the story is simple - Sebastian's drug debt is due and Terry's patience has worn thin. A one-sided deal is made - Sebastian must commit murder and all will be forgiven. But, Sebastian's not a blues musician. Murder doesn't come naturally.
But, you know. Sometimes, you have to make the choice and sometimes both light and dark are necessary.
Billy Blair dazzles as Sebastian, infusing him with an immersive likability no matter how dark his path gets. It gets dark. It's also, for the record, surprisingly funny and incredibly human. Sebastian just wants to play music, however, he keeps losing gigs to Ricky (Vernon Davis). It's not so much that Ricky is more talented - he's just more of everything else that fills the seats.
Sebastian's night will be filled with drugs, killers, crooked cops, and more. This kind of journey could have gone horribly wrong, but Presley makes it work with a killer ensemble.
Ed Westwick is profoundly inspired as Stanley Roberson. The always impressive Richard Riehle is once again as Edward, a seemingly innocent dog walker who may not be as innocent as he seems. Ammie Masterson gives Tonic an emotional layer that breathes life into it.
What a terrific cast here.
Oh, I can't forget Lori Petty. A long under-appreciated actress, Petty's not here for long but she dazzles when she is here with an honesty and presence that's honestly kind of mind-blowing.
D.P. Azariah Bjorvig's lensing is nothing short of masterful and brings Deep Ellum to life in profound ways. There's always a foreboding sense of potential dread here and so much of that comes from Bjorvig's camera work. Everything works - the framing, the lingering, the color palette. Everything.
I should also give a mention to Jason Starnes for top-notching editing that both gives us room to breathe and lingers long enough to make sure we feel Sebastian's discomfort. Tonic is a patient, thoughful film amidst all the action and threats of action.
Tonic doesn't so much blow you away as it settles in underneath your skin. You feel the grit. You feel the grim. You feel the desperation. You feel the desire for something else. You feel the light. You feel the dark. You feel the disclaimer in-between.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic