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At first glance, in a summer populated by big summer tent-pole franchises and enough capes, cowls and CGI to make even James Cameron and Zack Snyder blush, it would be too easy to pass by a small independent film by a first time director and a cast of relatively unknown actors. After all, the title – Custody Road – does not necessarily imply umpteen car chases with movie stars who look as if they share a bed with Gold’s Gym. Nor should it, for first time director and well known and respected character actor John Lacy (Dogfight, Zodiac, Sons of Anarchy) delivers something altogether deeper and more profound than the usual popcorn fare discovered in multiplexes in the dog days of summer.
The plot of Custody Road is simple enough and, in less capable hands, might be yet another Lifetime Movie of the week: A father has his ex-wife kidnapped by two bumbling souls on the eve of a crucial custody hearing in order to ensure a favorable outcome in regards to the role he wants to have in his infant son’s life. In Lacy’s hands, however, the potential for cliché and camp becomes, instead, a gonzo world gone wrong.
I became aware of Custody Road over a year ago when I was interviewing John Lacy for a book I was working on. One thing became clear to me right out of the gate: John had a real and pure love for this story he had written and directed. And his passion was contagious as he began to describe to me the plot and what he had to do to make this slice of celluloid a reality. Independent film is almost always a labor of love and what the indie might lack for in budget it more than makes up for in creativity and originality. Such was the case with John’s work here; a budget of only one hundred thousand dollars (about one day’s worth of catering on an Avengers movie) and a cast of mostly unknowns which the director plucked fresh from a master acting class he was teaching at the time, this remarkable visionary imparted to me his own excitement as he and his investors – three of whom were roommates of John’s from his college days in Minnesota – embarked upon a final IndieGoGo campaign to make their dream of a true and modern day film noir into a beautiful reality. And brother, did they ever succeed.
Custody Road, despite its broad and far reaching implications to its characters story-wise, is at heart an intimate and soft-spoken drama noir that peels back layers from the characters and reminds us that what you see isn’t always what you get. The characters are all flawed and believable: Logan, the shock comedian (or “commentator” as he would probably prefer to be called) who has lived a life without the benefit of a solid and stable father figure himself and who refuses to allow his own son to experience those same sad feelings of abandonment and failure he went through as a youth; Ashley, the kidnapped ex who loves her child more than anything but who battles her own private demons; the kidnappers Otis and Loretta who remind me of a sad modern day Fred and Ethel Mertz by way of David Lynch; Jack, the intrepid gumshoe who barrels into what he first assumes to be a simple missing persons case only to discover something much more complex; and tough as nails lawyer Rona whose own backstory with the stories private eye is only hinted at in the terse, bittersweet dialogue between the two.
Rounding out this rogues gallery of shady characters is Billy, a ne’er-do-well who is the small yet crucial lynch-pin in the story of Custody Road. This small ensemble I can pay the highest of compliments to. I would happily watch all these characters in their own respective movies. Lacy’s writing of this disparate group makes them very well lived in and hints at a ton of backstory for each one. The world created for these characters fits them and makes sense.
Watching Custody Road, you get the overarching impression of an almost American type tragedy. To quote Jim Morrison, “no one gets out alive.” By the films end everyone has their respective scars – even poor Loretta, expertly essayed by newcomer Andrea Muller.
Who was “right” and who was “wrong” at the end of the day? Lacy doesn’t provide any easy answers and he does something altogether rare in this day of the aforementioned blockbuster superhero movies and franchise sci-fi operas: He forces his audience to THINK about all of these different perspectives from the respective worldview of the characters. Uncomfortable truths are faced by our characters and a mirror is held up in their own mind’s eye about the ugly things we can sometimes say to those we love the most. I squirmed during some of the arguments between Logan and Ashley as it all seemed so real an immediate. John Lacy hits upon some real universal truths in his work and to that I say, ‘Bravo.’
The cast of Custody Road deserves highest praise, too. Where have all of these fine actors been all of my life? Josh Daugherty had a tough and some might say an unenviable role to play, but the director and actor infused Logan with a real humanity that make you concerned with Logan’s final outcome; ditto Erin Fleming who reminds me of a younger Ellen Barkin. Frank Crim is out of this world and I actually gasped when he met his (some might say) inevitable outcome. Andrea Muller is going to be one to watch as will Dohn Norwood and Rachael Markarian. And Johnny Jenkinson? Pure brilliance.
After I first saw Custody Road I e-mailed John Lacy and said this to him: “Custody begs comparison to a genre of film I’ve long loved, film noir…It watches like a belated Valentine from the likes of masters in that genre such as Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang and Robert Siodmak…”
In a day and age where most film going experiences are more fluff than substance, I can’t think of a higher recommendation than the above for anyone who loves the pure magic and mystery of going to a darkened theater and getting lost in a mysterious world.