Oct 19, 2005 at 12:00 am

Film crit kingpin Roger Ebert practically busted a nut over this film, stating it had “one of the most immediately gripping opening scenes I can remember.”

True enough, the first five minutes of Firecracker immediately command your attention. Unfortunately, filmmaker Steve Balderson seems to have blown his wad on the opener, as the remainder of this convoluted yet intriguing film is a haphazard mix of edgy, bold moves and just plain terrible clichés.

Loosely based on a murder that happened in Balderson’s rural Kansas hometown decades ago (how’s this for creepy: Balderson actually managed to film in the very house where the murder was committed), the movie introduces us to a typically dysfunctional family: Mom Eleanor (Karen Black) is devoutly religious, Dad is practically a nonentity, and testosterone-addled older brother David (Mike Patton) tortures his sensitive, shy, stuttering younger brother Jimmy (Jak Kendall). It’s Fourth of July and the carnival is in town, and both brothers find themselves enraptured with torch singer Sandra, also played by Black, who gets smacked around frequently by carnival owner Frank, also played by Patton. What follows is a sad and sordid story of infatuation, betrayal and fucked-up family values — certainly well-trodden territory, but Balderson throws more than enough curve balls to keep you on your toes.

Firecracker employs just about every indie film cliché in the book: mixing black-and-white with color, slo-mo, a woman in a white gown in a field, Venetian blind shadows, blood down a drain. Some of these are used very effectively; some just fall flat.

Black is perfectly at home in her role as a creased and well-worn low-rent diva, and her depiction of Eleanor is equally striking. The dual-role shtick is a bit much on the Freudian Oedipal tip, but Black handles it deftly. However, Patton, best known as the lead singer of freaky rock bands Faith No More and Mr. Bungle, should be forced to listen to endless hours of Backstreet Boys albums as punishment for his butchering of his roles. As a singer, he’s intoxicating, but as an actor he is criminally awful. In portraying the big, mean carnie owner, he overacts so horribly he might as well have been wearing a giant sandwich board saying, “Hi, I’m the Villain” in neon letters. Kendall, however, is stellar as the tormented and awkward Jimmy. His mannerisms are so quietly striking, his awkwardness so palpable, that at times it’s almost heartbreaking to watch his angelic face twist into a grimace.

The supporting cast of real carnival freaks is inexcusably wasted. When you’ve roped in talent like a man who’s tattooed his entire body with blue puzzle pieces (The Enigma), and a midget burlesque dancer (Selene Luna, known as Bobby Pinz in Los Angeles’ venerable troupe Velvet Hammer), you do not push them off onto the sidelines, especially when heaping on the melodrama, which drops like a lead weight halfway through the film. Amid all the increasingly dark and disturbing plot twists, there’s a snippet of Luna’s performance: She’s plucked from a baby carriage and invokes a sultry striptease, peeling down to sparkling pasties. It’s a welcome dose of humor, and the film sorely needs more of it.

It’s hard to decide what to make of Firecracker; it’s half engaging, half irritating, and wholly creepy. Yet for all its faults, there are flashes of near brilliance and delightful ingenuity. It’s the sort of film that will get under your skin and spark spirited conversations and arguments over post-viewing drinks. It’s definitely worth a look, whether you love it, hate it or both.


One night only, Tuesday, Oct. 17, at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).

Sarah Klein is Metro Times culture editor. Send comments to [email protected].