Austin Film Festival: Good filmmaking dies in “Two Deaths of Henry Baker”

Two Deaths of Henry Baker Two Deaths of Henry Baker (Austin Film Festival)

Director Felipe Mucci delivers a crime thriller that’s heavy on darkness but light on substance.

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(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Austin Film Festival.)

Two Deaths of Henry Baker kicks off with a pair of flashbacks. The first is set in 1958 and shows a young Henry Baker digging up a hole with his dad to hide some stolen money. We then move forward to 1988, where a grown-up Baker (Gil Bellows) is taking his son, Hank, to take care of that buried money. In the effort, Baker ends up shooting his brother, Sam Bird (also Bellows), and getting arrested. We then move forward to 2008 and at this point, I was hoping we’d just be constantly cutting forward in time. Maybe Henry Baker would casually end up in 2082, like Dan Fogelman’s disastrous Life Itself.

Alas, no. The principal story takes place in 2008 and follows a grown-up Hank (writer Sebastian Pigott) learning that his dad is about to get released from prison. Simultaneously, Sam Bird Jr. (Joe Dinicol), the son of Baker’s brother, has also heard this news and has got a hankering for revenge. As Baker emerges from the slammer, a swarm of characters appears who have a bone to pick with Baker. None of them are as bloodthirsty as Sam Bird Jr.; shoot-outs, double-crosses and grisliness ensues.

All this bleak mayhem is in the service of two themes. The first is that revenge is bad. The other is that toxic behavior can run in the family. In Felipe Mucci‘s movie, neither theme amounts to much.

Two Deaths of Henry Baker is a Southern crime story that feels like a sub-Asylum knock-off of a Cormac McCarthy adaptation. The script by Sebastian Pigott is a convoluted mess, filled to the brim with too many disposable characters. The law of averages suggests somebody in this sprawling cast should leave an impression, but all these characters blur together in a sea of testosterone-laden angst. Two Deaths of Henry Baker doesn’t have characters. It has attendees of an edgelord cowboy’s convention caught on camera.

Pigott’s story fares about as well as the characters. His script goes down predictable roads in its attempts to be weighty and dark. In leaning so hard on the familiar, opportunities to establish a unique identity slip through the fingers of Henry Baker. The small town this film takes place in, for instance, is as devoid of personality as its inhabitants. It could reside on either side of the Mississippi River. Dialogue like “bitch side of the family,” meanwhile, could have hailed from any seventh grader trying too hard to be macho.

Two Deaths of Henry Baker is a Southern crime story that feels like a sub-Asylum knock-off of a Cormac McCarthy adaptation.

Director Felipe Mucci is similarly uninspired in his filmmaking. The whole production at least looks competent, but there’s no flair in the camerawork or direction. The color palette, for instance, uses the same washed-out hues we’ve seen in a thousand other crime thrillers. Suspenseful shoot-out or fight sequences especially suffer from the rote visual approach.

Mucci can’t muster up any real tension in how he frames these pivotal moments. His derivative direction keeps us detached from the characters’ vengeful emotions. This mechanical filmmaking undercuts even the most harrowing setpieces; the lazy framing of Henry Baker getting beat up by cops in 1988, for example, turns brutality into banality.

The only distinct creative choice on the part of Mucci and Pigott is to pack Two Deaths of Henry Baker with needle drops. Oh God, there are so many needle drops. Nary an important scene can go by without a familiar tune blaring on the soundtrack, beat the viewer over the head with a scene’s obvious subtext. For example, a young Hank walking away from his dad’s pick-up truck alone brings out the pipes of Pigott singing about “a lonely soldier.” Even Robert Zemeckis would find that too obvious.

These ditties want to channel the raw pain of the best Johnny Cash or Gary Allan tracks. Instead, they just cement how little this movie has on its mind. Its themes are so simplistic that they can be boiled down to these terrible lyrics. If only they’d been restricted to just a handful of songs. Instead, the themes inspired obnoxious characters and an unbearable grim tone. Two Deaths of Henry Baker is about various revenge missions gone awry, but none of them were bungled as badly as this movie.

Two Deaths of Henry Baker Trailer:

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