's "Broken Vessels" ventures into the oft-explored world of drug addiction with the novel twist that its junkies are paramedics. This makes for a harrowing ambulance ride, but the destination is all too familiar.
Lacking a compelling script, "Broken Vessels" isn't likely to connect with a sizable audience. Look for a fast theatrical payoff with this film after having spent the past year on the festival circuit.
That is a shame because the film -- written by David Baer, John McMahon and Ziehl -- at first benefits from its fascinating milieu. The daily rounds of paramedics as they roam Los Angeles' meanest streets offer dramatic situations and colorful characters operating in a pressure-cooker environment.
Tom (Jason London
), a young man from Pennsylvania anxious to pay off a self-imposed debt to society, takes a job as an ambulance driver. (One of the unexplained curiosities of the film is that although Tom is hired with that job title, he seldom, if ever, drives.)
But instead of saving humanity while he trains under his partner Jimmy (Todd Field
), Tom is plunged into a cynical world of on-duty drinking, fornication, drug deals, petty theft and, finally, drug addiction. The key denizens of this underworld are Suzy (Susan Traylor
), Jimmy's next door neighbor and a speed freak, and Gramps (Patrick Cranshaw
), an aging addict whom Jimmy has for years supplied with heroin.
Seemingly unable to alter his partner's behavior or extricate himself from the no-win situation, Tom stumbles down the path to self-destruction with only minor qualms of conscience.
Flashbacks to Tom's past point to a deep guilt that may be partially fueling his refusal to pull himself together. A one-night stand with a "normal" girl (Roxana Zal
) offers Tom the hope of redemption, which he promptly rejects.
The film is certainly well made. Working with a limited budget, Ziehl and cinematographer Antonio Calvache give the adrenaline-pumping occupation of ambulance drivers a gritty reality. The actors convincingly create portraits of lost souls, especially London with a lemming-like devotion to his mentor and Field with a cocky swagger that seduces his young partner into joining a dangerous lifestyle.
But the film, much like its protagonist, becomes too fascinated with hard drugs at the expense of story and character development. How many scenes of drug buys, shooting-up and vomiting are necessary to make a point?
The film's best line belongs to Gramps who, referring to his longtime drug habit, says, "When people talk about living, this is not what they're talking about."
Ziehl should have realized that with a line like that, he could have cut 20 minutes of junkie high jinks.
Unapix Films/Zeitgeist Films
Producer:Roxana Zal, Scott Ziehl
Writer:David Baer, John McMahon, Scott Ziehl
Co-producers:David Baer, Robyn Knoll
, Todd Field
Director of photography:Antonio Calvache
Production designer:Rodrigo Castillo
Costume designer:Roseanne Fiedler
Editors:David Moritz, Chris Figler
Mr. Chen:James Hong
Running time -- 90 minutes
MPAA rating: R