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No, it's got nothing to do with the sport of Snooker; but maker of the piece Ponsoldt has fun shifting his characters around as if they were marble balls on an open table.
2006 film Off the Black pre-dates Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino by about three or so years. The tale of a lonely, elderly man living in an American neighbourhood whom forms a bond with young-'un that recently wronged him, or attempted to, works, with hindsight, close to all but just as well here. The film is dominated by a wonderful performance from Nick Nolte, a character we observe suffering from isolation in a sparsely populated neighbourhood complimenting his sparsely populated life. His character's mental health and mental well-being is placed right on the spot from the off, one instance seeing him talk directly into a tripod mounted video camera as he reminisces about the day just gone by, a sort of video diary that enables him to talk; to interact; to just get his feelings out and known even if there's nobody any where near the general vicinity of his plot of land.
Off the Black tells the story of two rather different individuals at very different points in their life. For Nolte's Ray Cook, that ability to make a cut-and-thrust decision in the heat of the moment when the stakes are rather high is demonstrated in the film's first scene when, as a line judge in a baseball match, he calls foul on a home pitcher and they consequently loose the match. Very quickly we're given the sense that this guy is not afraid of making a call. As the film progresses, his efficiency to function as someone as honest and clear-cut dawn on us that these things may have contributed to his current situation. The pitcher, a certain Dave Tibbel (Morgan) who's still a high school student in comparison, takes it on with a few buddies to wreck a revenge on Cook's house ultimately something that has more of an impact on Tibbel's life than he first presumed. Off the Black sees writer/director James Ponsoldt apply a very gradual, very natural arc to proceedings in using his ability to determine just how far Tibbel's inner-feelings are manifesting by providing a strand documenting the downfall in his friendship with his high-school pals as a friendship with Cook develops.
The beauty of Ponsoldt's script allows both characters to undergo respective changes without ever overbearing us with one or the other, with both characters and their progressions vying for power as the audience latch onto either one of the younger or the elder. After catching Tibbel in his yard immediately post-prank, six-shooter in hand, as graffiti covers the side of Ray's car and toilet roll covers both the roof of the house and a tree in the garden, forcing it to look more like a spaghetti junction from a distance, an agreement between the two sees Tibbel return to the scene of the crime and clear everything up rather than involve the police. Ray's decision to use police involvement as a threat more-so an idea of plan of action works just so as to get some regular company over at his place, and I have a feeling it was always going to be the way. As Ray himself observes: Dave may very well be a regular, average kid; but he's not yet at a point where he can make his own decisions, something that rings true nearer the very end when David is faced, in what is quite a jarring scene, with a pretty powerful decision that involves whether or not to play a video cassette.
In cutting away, briefly, to document the decline in relations with his friends; there is poignant sequence in which David and his own father share a scene with Ray close in-tow, a kitchen window acting as a physical barrier between David and his father played effectively in the few scenes he has by Timothy Hutton. This visual clue as to which male adult David is able to better connect with, and on a more consistently basis, tells us feature film débutant Ponsoldt has an astute eye for injecting life and meaning into dialogue sequences in which the most basic of human emotions are explored by way of the usual dialogue.
Like most of what Cook goes through in Off the Black, the film carries a wavy and distant feel; a tone of emptiness in a film which is full of rich character studies. While I think it's the better film, the pulpy and somewhat action orientated tone of 2009's Gran Torino combined such elements with it being a generally intimate film shot with a persistent use of the close up, applied to specific scenes when the elderly male and the younger male share experiences. Rather than maneuver down this route in which youth orientated antagonism was persistently hanging over the younger character of the piece, Off the Black instead incorporates longer shots of lonely houses backing onto train lines; calm, spitting sprinklers going about their business on lawns and on one occasion, Nolte's character perched on a jet ski amidst a wide open and lonely lake of gently lapping water. Where Gran Torino is aggressive and confrontational in an increasingly aggressive and transitional world, Off the Black takes a step backwards and just enjoys more the observing of these people in-between developing them. There is a moment about half way through when Cook has a crazy idea that Tibbel reacts to, only to later find out that in playing out the suggested role, he fills two gaps at once in not only his, but Cook's life as well. Off the Black is a rich and rather rewarding, burning drama which effectively looks at maintaining families and friendships to the best of some rather unintegrated person's ability.
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