The Movie Waffler First Look Review - <i>A Public Ransom</i> | The Movie Waffler

First Look Review - A Public Ransom

A failing writer finds himself embroiled in a kidnapping plot.

Directed by: Pablo D'Stair
Starring: Carlyle Edwards, Helen Bonaparte, Goodloe Byron

The premise of A Public Ransom is intriguing in its noir-ish machinations. Steven (Carlyle Edwards - a pseudonym for the writer/director, Pablo D’Stair) is a failing and embittered writer who happens across a shabby looking missing-child poster with the image and number scrawled in childish crayons. Believing the poster to be a joke, yet idly wondering if there could be an idea for a story in the situation, he calls the number. The mercurial Bryant (Goodloe Byron) answers, and laconically informs Steven that he has, in fact, kidnapped a young girl, going on to demand $2000 from Steven, or else the child will die. Unsure of Bryant’s integrity, Steven begins a communique with him, and is soon drawn into a game of psychological cat and mouse as Bryant proceeds to invade all aspects of Steven’s life; most insidiously by beginning a sexual relationship with Steven’s only friend, Rene (Helen Bonaparte).
Adapted by D’Stair from his own short story, A Public Ransom is an arch and compelling little indie. The film’s literary origins are evident within the film’s extensive use of dialogue, but also a canny ‘meta fiction’ angle; Bryant and Steven discuss the kidnapping as if it is a story they are collaborating on, wherein it soon transpires that it is Steven who is the main character, whose arc is manipulated by devious ‘author’ Bryant. Goodloe Byron’s performance is darkly charming; he essays a persuasive villain whose deadpan malice creates a palpable unease. Paranoia creeps in from the shadowed edges of the screen, as Steven, and the audience, are left guessing at Bryant’s motivations: is he actually a depraved kidnapper, or simply an urbane wind up merchant?
A Public Ransom’s love and respect for (and aspirations towards…) the indie/art cinema pantheon is clear in every scene. A character name drops Fitzcarraldo at one point, and there are posters in the background for Repulsion and Stranger than Paradise. The latter nod is perhaps a little too apposite; the film’s style and pleasingly lazy jazz ambiance is directly influenced by Jarmusch. Filmed entirely in black and white, the film’s scenes are composed of long, uninterrupted takes, and there is talk. Lots and lots of talk. Audiences’ mileage may vary towards such an emphasis on discourse and discussion, but for the main part, this reviewer enjoyed the tight dialogue, which snaps and twists like a sharply played game of cards.
Along with its slyly dextrous dialogue, A Public Ransom also strives for visual virtuosity: D’Stair takes care to frame his shots to make expressive use of space and lighting; wide angles that emphasise the sharp angles and enclosed spaces that the characters are trapped in, white hot key lights that slash shadows across the filthy damp concretes of downtown. A Public Ransom’s world is one suffused with threat, and a morality that is neither black nor white, but a deepening shade of grey.
Of course, as with any micro-budgeted independent project, A Public Ransom is not without flaws. While the nighttime shots of Stephen - stranded, wandering, lost - are well filmed, and the film is usually interesting to watch, there is a distinct sense of indulgence at times; a seemingly endless sequence close to the film’s end of Steven walking and smoking, walking and smoking, veers dangerously close to self-parody. Also, there are a few too many scenes involving Steven on the phone, chewing someone out in his familiar passive aggressive manner. Presumably this was a practical decision due to budgetary concerns (the director/actor could work the scene on his own, while still developing the plot), but not only are these scenes repetitive, but they become confusing; since Steven speaks in the same bellicose tone to all of his phone associates, it becomes difficult to distinguish who is at the end of the line (especially as two of the people he talks to throughout are never seen on screen).
However, if you are in the market for sullen, cool cinema, that’s as nuanced as it is atmospheric, then A Public Ransom is well worth an hour and a half of your time. At the time of writing, A Public Ransom does not have a distribution deal, but you can catch it for free on the film’s website at I recommend that you do.