What would you do if you were kidnapped by a desperate criminal and taken into an uninhabited forest? This is the question posed by Trinidad and Tobago dramatic thriller The Cutlass directed by Darisha Beresford, written by Teneille Newallo and starring Lisa-Bel Hirschman, Arnold Goindhan and Kirk Baltz (Reservoir Dogs).
The 2016 film won Best T&T Feature and People’s Choice last year at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival. It began its full run at local cinemas this month and you know what that means – review time! Without any spoilers here is The Cutlass in three slices:
#1 Tense Thriller
Inspired by a true story The Cutlass is the tale of a young woman named Joanna (Hirschman) who is kidnapped following a robbery by a petty criminal named Al (Goindhan). Al takes Joanna into the forests of Toco, a village on the north east coast, and holds her captive in a shack. The film could have easily descended into a melodramatic, Lifetime-esque movie but the director and script writer keep things real and grounded. The plot is also well paced, slowing down when it needs to and turning up the thrills in the more tense scenes.
In terms of visuals The Cutlass is a gorgeous film to look at. The opening aerial forest shots, paired with some haunting voices, is a powerful start. Overall the production quality is very high and it is one of the best looking films to come from the twin-island nation. The cinematography does a commendable job of capturing the beauty of mountains and beaches, an infusion of hope before the terror begins.
And Beresford does a great job of building tension and foreboding, using a mix of silence, syncopation and discordance. In the robbery scene the tension is nail-bitingly palpable and even more disturbing because of its authenticity. There is also a symmetry of scenes which I noticed, and appreciated, upon second viewing. One style choice that does not work as well is the narration by Hirschman which would have been fine as bookends but ends up being overused. In this case there should have been more show, less tell.
#2 Trini style all in it
The film was shot on location in Trinidad but the local aesthetic goes beyond the visual. The name of the movie “cutlass” is the more popular name for machete. There is a bar scene with men playing the card game “all fours” which is quintessentially Trinidadian. In terms of food, Al mentions that he was so poor that he had to eat bread and condensed milk, which is a treat the average Trini has enjoyed as a child.
For dialogue the use of Trini colloqualisms like “lewwe go” (let’s go) and “brougtupsy” (how your parents raised you) are sprinkled throughout but it is not used to the point that foreign audiences would require subtitles. There is also a beach scene where Joanna and friends “lime” (hang out) and drink which also feels authentic.
In terms of music the films relies mostly on instrumentals; those hoping for toe-tapping calypso or soca tunes will be disappointed. The film does feature a song from local rock band Orange Sky which was effective for the chosen scene.
#3 Al’s the Man
I saved the acting for last because this is where the film both triumphs and trips up. Goindhan, a longtime theatre actor, is simply masterful as Al. He takes what could have a been a generic, hackneyed villain and gives a nuanced, layered performance. When you can sympathise with and understand a bad guy you know that you have done a good job. And the most disturbing part of the portrayal is how “normal” he is. He intimidates, invades women’s personal space and wields his cutlass as a symbol of power, but he is also genuinely funny and conversational at times. The character says he is all about power and control but he is really a broken, lost individual. He tells Joanna “Trust and love is an illusion” and you can tell Al has experienced neither in his tragic life. There are moments when you see cracks in his iron facade and Goindhan delivers genuine, touching emotion. It is an award-worthy performance that lifts the entire film.
Goindhan and Hirschman have decent chemistry as the film explores their power struggle and dynamic relationship. We see her fearing him, pitying him and even opposing him. She imbues the character with a strength and resiliency that makes the audience root for her. The writing for Joanna is pretty solid and avoids the dumb actions that are symptomatic of characters in the thriller genre. Hirschman is a bit stiff, however, in some of the family scenes and between Joanna and boyfriend Tyler (Michael De Souza). De Souza is not bad but his performance does fall somewhat flat.
On the positive side Baltz gives a strong performance as Joanna’s father Jake and his emotional strain feels real. Rebecca M Foster plays Joanna’s mother, Christine, but she is outmatched by Baltz and, while she seems concerned, you are never convinced that she is in emotional turmoil for her daughter. Besides Baltz other standout performances include Gary Moore as Sergeant James, Conrad Parris as gangster boss Prowler and Ruby Parris as Joanna’s bubbly friend Beth. While the acting is a mixed bag the brilliant work by Goindhan, the tightly paced plot, lovely visuals, sleek production quality and deep themes make The Cutlass a rewarding experience worthy of multiple viewings.
Rating: The Cutlass gets 3.75/5 machetes
For more Trinidad and Tobago films you can check out the review of the comedy short Flying the Coup here.
All photos courtesy of Blue Basin Films.