Studio: Uncork'd Entertainment
Director: Jose Prendes
Writer: Jose Prendes
Producer: Jon Kondelik, James Kondelik
Stars: Graham Denman, Jon Kondelik, Hannah Levien, Sean Whalen, Ken Foree, Barbara Crampton
Two sociopathic half-brothers discover their true identities after exploring a shared urge to commit the perfect murder.
There is a scene in “The Divine Tragedies,” a simultaneously tranquilized and hyper-stylized thriller about two brothers flirting with homicidal tendencies, where one brother smugly challenges the other to expand his simplistic assessment of a film being “just okay” into eloquently thoughtful criticism. Through tense teeth, the other brother instead finalizes the conversation with his terse reiteration, “some films are only okay.” “The Divine Tragedies” practically dares critics to swipe at that silver platter and I’m accepting. If ever a movie wrote its own review with a single line of dialogue…
Well-to-do half-brothers Thomas and Charles had different fathers, but they do have their drunk Bette Davis of a bedridden mother in common. Something else shared by the affluent duo is a burgeoning urge to leap from sociopathic snobbery to cold-blooded killing. For the well-mannered and well-manicured siblings, there is no better proof of entitled elitist intelligence than pulling off the perfect murder.
An average street hooker won’t do, of course. Charles and Thomas’ target must be pure and meaningful. Charles chills his feet when Thomas chooses a local waitress to take their blade, as he has romantic eyes for the glowing young beauty. Once the deed is done however, the brothers swap mindsets and a monster is unleashed. With a psychic detective biting their tails, and one brother suddenly entertaining second thoughts, this ill-conceived crime might not have a chance to morph into a spree.
Loosely reimagining the true crime tale of Leopold and Loeb, writer/director Jose Prendes tackles tone with the commitment of a precocious toddler, dropping toys to the ground on sudden whims of disinterest and wobbling willy-nilly towards whatever glimmer catches the eye next. “The Divine Tragedies” ends up with a Jackson Pollock approach to blending genres, allowing splatters of disparate styles to drip, dribble, and overlap without ever fusing into premeditated cohesion.
Much of the movie is intentionally overdramatic. As the brothers, Jon Kondelik brings to mind a slimmer Dan Stevens while Graham Denman makes for a fuller George McFly. Playing parodies of prep school yuppies, their initial characterizations recite dialogue like Shakespeare by way of “South Park,” making for gratingly phony caricatures of already patience-testing personas.
A sharp turn is taken after the first murder, though. This is when “The Divine Tragedies” strikes a match at the far end of its macabre John Waters tunnel with Kondelik and Denman swapping personalities, and being better off for it. The duo does well with the shift from exaggerated theatrics to strict seriousness and for a moment, the film starts a climb towards more grounded portrayals with relatable repercussions.
But the movie can’t sit still there, either. “The Divine Tragedies” also aims to be funny when it wants, though those moments are often inconsistent, and don’t always read as intentional.
One way the movie threads the right needle between dire stakes and dark humor is with an outstanding Ken Foree supporting performance as a gumshoe with ESP to match his hard-boiled instincts. Relishing quirky lines such as, “like cinnamon and Jesus had a baby!” to praise good coffee, Foree preens like a Cheshire cat calmly taking its time before pouncing on a trapped rat. Foree eats up every inch of the screen, repeatedly dunking his character into a tub of personality, and swallowing scenes in single gulps before digesting them just as fast.
The film’s other genre vet, Barbara Crampton, has less space to shine in a role somehow managing to make the actress underused and overused concurrently. Underused in that she is put on her feet for only one moment while confined under a wig and bedcovers for the rest. Overused in that those scenes of her sipping wine while lying prone resurface regularly to the point of tedium.
“The Divine Tragedies” is weird. Not weird in a way that makes it Lynchian or Burton-esque, but weird for being unable to decide what kind of movie it wants to be. Lighting and cinematography run the gamut from textbook three-point to unmotivated party gels to a jarring “Natural Born Killers” rear projection used for driving shots. The movie attempts to disguise its low budget by using such cost-cutters as style surrogates, but the look doesn’t always deliver the intended effect, such as poor digital blood spray on a stationary corpse restlessly jumping while the camera dollies.
There is a good deal of good content in “The Divine Tragedies,” but that material is scattered across 98 minutes that don’t hold up as a singularly sensible style exercise. Watching the film, I was never able to decide if it would work better as a straight crime drama, black comedy, or dreamlike arthouse experiment. The movie can’t make up its mind either, so it grasps at all options and then some. With too scatterbrained of a vision driving its direction, perhaps this idea required more time in the conceptual over before rolling camera on uncertain intent.
Review Score: 55