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Truly, the only place to start when discussing Stray Bullets is to bring up its writer/director Jack Fessenden, which might be unfair and draw attention away from the film, but to consider that he was only 15-years-old while the movie was in production is still rather remarkable and deserves recognition, especially considering the quality of what he has made. Avoiding the stylistic temptations that a person of his age might lean on, he instead crafts a surprisingly mature story that makes for a compelling character-driven experience.
Ash (Asa Spurlock) and Connor (Fessenden) start out as petty thieves, stealing a paintball gun from Connor’s automotive mechanic boss before heading to the hardware store to pick up cleaning supplies. They are walking a short distance into the woods, to Ash’s father’s derelict mobile camper home to clean it up, which he hopes to sell, but they are in no hurry. They stop and awkwardly flirt with some passing girls pushing their bikes in town. They play around in the wood, shooting at trees, quoting film, and put off what they are tasked with doing.
Meanwhile, in nearby New York City, three small-time gangsters are involved in a firefight as they flee a job, bloodied and scared as they drive north in a forty-year-old car on its last legs. The crooks (Le Gros, Larry Fessenden and John Speredakos) are shaken by the unexpected shootout and as one of them (Fessenden) is gut shot, slowly bleeding out in the back seat, the three argue and bicker about how it all went south. The man they robbed though is himself a bad guy and unleashes a hitman (Kevin Corrigan) to track them down and get back what’s his. As an inevitable collision draws them ever closer, a coming violence looms.
The film is effectively a two-part narrative as the cleanly-split movie spends the first half contrasting the soon-to-meet characters, setting up the similarities of the boys and the crooks, at least in terms of mirroring the theft and gun imagery. The teens are not ever presented as dangerous, though they have edge. The men, who have been teamed for over twenty-years, are less than hardened but are desperate, with this botched job causing them to tear apart. The second half sees the players in and around the abandoned trailer in growing conflict, leading up to the film’s titular promise.
The structure is a familiar one, and yet handled very well, with Fessenden populating his story with some obvious character types, especially the crooks who run the course from cold-blooded to politely dimwitted. Still, Fessenden has a few surprises in the story and while it might not reach levels of more accomplished filmmakers, there is a lot here that shows tremendous promise. Fessenden shows great restraint in use of slow motion and pacing, especially in the final act, even if the story itself can’t quite sustain the impact of the earlier moments as it barrels toward a predictable, albeit harrowing end. It echoes and homages Tarantino, with a mysterious briefcase and lots of snappy dialogue, and yet it never feels like a knockoff.
Fessenden wears a number of hats in Stray Bullets, including acting and directing, but also the score, of which merits praise of its own. Directing his father Larry, who himself is a longtime filmmaker (and serves as cinematographer here), Fessenden delivers an accomplished film that is often smart, even if some of the performances fall a little short and Fessenden indulges himself in the final act. While it may have some flaws, Stray Bullets remains a highly-compelling experience for a feature film debut, one that proves there is still life in a genre seemingly exhausted of its potential.
Movie description: Stray Bullets is a 2017 crime-thriller about a two teenagers who discover far more than they bargained for when they look to clean out an old mobile home.
Director(s): Jack Fessenden
Actor(s): Jack Fessenden, James Le Gros, John Speredakos, Larry Fessenden