Studio: DragonGate Films
Director: Stephon Stewart
Writer: Stephon Stewart, Christopher Dean Elliott
Producer: Kate Atkinson, John Mancini, Stephon Stewart
Stars: Paul Rae, Stephon Stewart, Beatrice Rosen, Kaylee Bryant, Joanna Cassidy, James Martin Kelly
A disgraced doctor is forced to make a series of resolve-testing decisions in order to save his family from an unstable madman.
Zugzwang is a situation in chess where a player is forced to make a move that puts him/her in a worse position than s/he was previously. “Zugzwang” is also a movie following the same definition, as it introduces one element after another in service of a story growing more unbelievable until a merciful checkmate puts a stop to it all.
David is a disgraced doctor whose extramarital affair and workplace blunder find him relocating his wife, daughter, mother, and dog for a fresh start in Los Angeles. Standing in the way of that plan is Maury, the father of a young patient who died on David’s operating table. Determined to see to it that David understands the torturous pain of a grieving father, Maury kidnaps David’s daughter Elizabeth, hijacks his television and technology, and forces David to make gut-wrenching decisions for a chance to save what is left of his family.
Madman with a plan of improbable proportions is a premise that has spawned a hugely successful torture-horror franchise as well as a slew of similarly themed revenge thrillers. Despite the obvious parallel to something like “Saw,” “Zugzwang” is not quite so far out there in terms of convoluted plotting. As a micro-budget indie, “Zugzwang” keeps its version of the twisted justice concept grounded with a close to home sentiment and a tight group of less than a half dozen characters.
A familiar plot and skeleton production are not what keeps “Zugzwang” from taking flight, however. The chief problem in play is a cast that has a hard time fitting snugly into the roles as written.
Co-writer and director Stephon Stewart also casts himself as David. Unconvincing would be the kindest adjective to describe Stewart’s performance. Fellow filmgoers seated to either side as well as behind me during the film’s Shriekfest premiere regularly snickered at horribly flat line delivery. Stewart whines in a monotone as if disappointed that his favorite television program scheduled a rerun when he is supposed to be reacting to a maniac threatening to wire-cut his daughter’s digits. Stewart plays David so confusedly that the seriousness of events onscreen is consistently undermined, never having a snowball’s chance at established truly nailbiting gravity.
As his nemesis Maury, Paul Rae is a terrific character actor who is more than capable of playing a darkly disturbed mind, but he is miscast as this particular disillusioned psycho. With the meticulous plotting, cable signal rerouting, cell phone jamming, and technological steps taken to put his plan into action, Maury is practically the Jason Bourne of sociopaths. Yet clad in a wife-beater and denim work shirt while speaking in a distinguished drawl, everything about Rae’s onscreen persona instead screams, “blue collar.”
I can buy Jigsaw going through this kind of trouble and then some because the “Saw” premises are so extreme and the setups so elaborate that they have no pretense of being anything other than revenge fantasy entertainment. “Zugzwang” doesn’t have the macabre-minded fun of “Saw.” Its feet are planted firmly in a world meant to be taken as reality, which means the ridiculous logistical scope of Maury’s plot is harder to overlook.
As seen on CNN when this sort of event occurs in reality, Maury is the kind of John Lunchpail vigilante who would simply pick up a pistol and shoot the doctor in his driveway during a fit of revenge-fueled rage. This calculated plan of complicated logistics, kidnapping, and moral conundrums suits a character different than the one Rae embodies. Listening to him soapbox in a voice that sounds like a NASCAR announcer mixed with a redneck auctioneer is more grating than it is menacing.
Joanna Cassidy as the grandmother and Kaylee Bryant as the daughter stand out as supporting stars, but there isn’t enough of them to keep the drama cooking at a high temperature. Paired together, Stewart and Rae just don’t work as protagonist and antagonist. And since they don’t work, neither does “Zugzwang.”
Falling in the same trap of both not working and being unconvincing is a script loaded with misaligned scenes and pedestrian dialogue. A first act dinner table sequence reads as follows:
Grandmother: “Your father is conscious about good health, honey. He’s a doctor.”
Daughter: “He used to be a doctor. Now he’s just a boring teacher.”
Mother: “Honey, we already talked about that. He wanted to spend a little more time with us.”
That exchange exists to give the audience three pieces of exposition. What it doesn’t provide is a realistic sense of how these people would relate to one another. Sit yourself at that table and imagine your own family having a normal conversation peppered with reminders of what everyone does for a living. Does it sound any less silly? Who talks like this?
The challenges presented to David are nerve-wracking. An assignment to drown his dog in the family pool received more of a reaction from the audience, multiple people walked out of the theater, than did the challenge to end his mother’s life in the following scene. At first, it appears as though “Zugzwang” might be on to razor-sharp suspense engineered specifically for tangible tension. Then poor plotting punctures the tires and strands the staging by the side of the road.
David and his wife shriek, run, and flail frantically throughout their house upon the first realization that their daughter is held by a potential killer. Maury has them tearing about the home and the yard, holding a thrashing animal down in the pool while everyone involved repeatedly shouts back and forth. Yet when the next assignment is to smother mother in her bed, grandma is miraculously sound asleep through it all, despite everyone making enough noise outside her bedroom door to rival Time’s Square on New Year’s Eve.
Even though none of the commotion rousts the sleeping woman, it does draw the attention of a concerned next-door neighbor, who is presumably much further from the fracas than grandma. Except when he comes over to say, “I heard (the dog) growl and scream,” he does so twenty minutes after the dog was actually drowned. Is the neighbor just now getting around to his armchair investigation, or is this merely the first available opening the script had to slip in his unnecessary aside?
Nothing against the Peanuts creator, but when a film opens on a Charles Schultz quote, you know it doesn’t have its sensibilities calibrated correctly for home invasion horror. “Zugzwang” might have been better off as a short. There isn’t enough content to comprise an engrossing feature, which is why the film runs just under 70 minutes to begin with. Besides a bleak, bare bones tale, the real issue with “Zugzwang” is that it takes on too much water from a premise that its casting can’t quite put over.
Review Score: 40