Welcome to a life in the night of the city.
That’s the idea for some terrific movies, in which a harried man on the run stumbles from danger to danger, eccentric to eccentric. Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, with its story of a wounded IRA member fleeing the authorities, was one. Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, with its oddball tale of a horny bachelor trapped in Soho, was another.
Now filmmaker Derek Presley puts his own frantic, farcical spin on things with Tonic.
Set in the darkest, dingiest corners of Dallas, it’s about Sebastian Poe, a deadbeat and a drunk who lives with his sick sister and makes a (bare) living playing piano. But his debts have come due, and the man who holds that marker either wants his money, now, or wants Sebastian to do a very special favor.
Kill someone for him tonight.
As Sebastian is as peaceful as he is impoverished, neither option seems particularly viable. But he has to do something. So the rest of the movie follows him, frantically, as he tries to come up with a solution – encountering gangsters, gunrunners, escorts and a probable serial killer along the way.
Like their heroes, stories like this only work if they keep moving, and Presley – who wrote as well as directed — keeps his foot on the gas. Poe never gets a chance to breathe. Neither do we, really, as every time he thinks he’s found a safe haven he discovers a new problem, and every time another character enters the scene it’s usually to throw a punch or pull a gun.
That sometimes tips over into parody. Poe takes so many beatings it’s a wonder his head doesn’t pop off, and his consumption of alcohol isn’t so much prodigious as terrifying. And the movie practically wallows in its own filth – almost everyone’s clothes are stained, everyone’s home a rat’s nest. (The one exception is an improbably classy sex worker.)
But as cheap as these people are the film never is.
The nicely lit cinematography captures a neon-lit, up-all-night side of Texas we rarely see. The lead performances – including Billy Blair as Poe and Lori Petty as his sick sister – are just right. And although, as Poe’s loan shark, Jason Coviello chews the scenery, he’s nicely countered by a gentlemanly Richard Riehle, as an innocent bystander who might not be as innocent as he appears.
All in all, Tonic is a shot of smart, surprising entertainment – served straight up, no chaser.