It’s hard enough to capture contemporary life in a low-budget movie, so attempting authentic period detail with very limited resources is always a dicey prospect. Writer-director Devon Parks takes a big risk by setting his small-scale indie production The Riot Act in 1903, as electricity was just becoming widespread and most people still traveled via horse and buggy. It’s a risk that, unfortunately, doesn’t pay off, as Parks’ entire cast look like uncomfortable attendees at a historically themed costume party, and his locations look like a sanitized theme park for Old West re-enactments. The muddled story and sometimes anachronistic dialogue don’t help, making it far too difficult to suspend disbelief and immerse yourself in the time period.
In a small frontier town in Arkansas, local doctor William Pearrow (Brett Cullen) is also the town’s wealthiest and most prominent citizen, thanks in part to his ownership of a prestigious opera house. The grumpy, humorless William seems like a reluctant patron of the arts, though, and he’s furious when he discovers that his daughter Allye (Lauren Sweetser) plans to run off with an opera singer. He confronts them late at night as they’re preparing to board a train out of town, wounding Allye and killing her paramour. Allye gets on the train and disappears, and the whole town believes that she was killed by her lover, whom William then killed in self-defense.
Two years later, the shuttered opera house is set to reopen with a show by a vaudeville troupe that comes off more like a circus sideshow production, led by a much-hyped strongman who never actually performs. The troupe’s purpose is sort of unclear, and it’s mainly just a plot device to get Allye, who’s now a masked vaudeville performer, back to town, after spending two years seething with anger at her father. She meets up with local blacksmith and stage hand August (Connor Price), who also has a grudge against William for reasons that Parks later reveals as an underwhelming plot twist, and they form a tentative alliance.
With its mix of onstage performances and behind-the-curtain intrigue, The Riot Act has echoes of oft-filmed classics like The Phantom of the Opera or the play-within-the-play of Hamlet, and Parks is clearly going for something Shakespearean on his exceedingly modest budget. But William’s torment by a hooded specter that resembles his victim has more in common with a Scooby-Doo episode, and the actors can never quite sell the script’s overwrought proclamations. It’s refreshing to see veteran character actor Cullen tear into a substantial leading role, but William is mostly a one-dimensional villain for the upstanding Allye and August to oppose.
Rather than capturing a tone of haunting melancholy, The Riot Act feels silly and underdeveloped, from its sketchy characters to its sparsely populated town to its minimal locations to its flat visual style. The period setting is a constant distraction, with very little historical value (there is, for some reason, a whole subplot about the dangers of cigar smoking). Parks aims admirably high, refusing to be constrained by budget or technical limitations, but his ambition consistently outstrips his abilities.