Dead Weight (2012)
Written and Directed by Adam Bartlett and John Pata
Why film producers with miniscule budgets choose the sweeping post-apocalypse story as their foray into microbudget filmmaking, I’ll never know. It could be that they’re ambitious artists with a passion for the challenges of such an undertaking. Maybe they’re just fans of the genre, and long for the cathartic release of a bleak story. Perhaps it’s simply because it’s easy to market. Whatever the case, I applaud anyone with the gumption to tackle it.
I’d assume a filmmaker without deep pockets feels like he or she has a unique story to tell. These types of films remain popular because of their immediate sense of urgency in today’s political and social climate. Since it’s a certainty we’ll keep seeing post-apocalypse films, low budget films tackling this sub-genre should at the very least offer something fresh to compete with bigger budget fair like The Road. With the right tools, it’s entirely possible to pull off a large-scale idea within a minimal framework.
Dead Weight is a feature film out of Wisconsin with its sights set at presenting an intimate look at a group of survivors when a viral outbreak hits Minneapolis among other major cities across the country. It’s a character study, but one which branches out into the psyches of an ensemble cast. It’s also a romantic drama aimed at putting a unique spin on the same old formula. While not wholly successful, I do applaud the effort of the Oshkosh crew behind it. Their DIY-or-die ethics, combined with determined know-how, delivers a technically sound film that stumbles a bit in its storytelling. It delivers a convincing atmosphere, but lacks a serious emotional punch.
Dead Weight opens up innocently enough with our protagonist Charlie (Joe Belknap) enjoying a bowl of cereal with his comics books. Charlie has just made the plane trip from Toledo, Ohio to Minneapolis to visit his girlfriend Samantha (Mary Lindberg). The two are riding out a rocky relationship after Samantha makes a career move to Minneapolis without consulting Charlie. Charlie is a bit selfish and childish in his behavior toward her rushed decision, but somewhat justified in being a little miffed at Samantha’s own selfishness.
The shit hits the fan with a phone call from Samantha warning Charlie of a viral threat and evacuation of the city. She informs Charlie that she’s heading out with some friends on a canoe to bypass the hordes of desperate people jamming the freeways. Charlie, leery of Samantha’s plan, arranges to meet up with her at a predetermined place once they are both safely out of the city. After the event, several hundred miles of rugged terrain, shady characters, and the infected population lie between him and Samantha.
After an indeterminate time, we find Charlie scavenging the frozen countryside with a ragtag group of survivors. They are a pack of strangers, united only in the fleeting safety of each others company. They’ve adopted Charlie’s plan to reach Wassau, relying only on his map. Charlie is often the odd-man-out due to his inability to take anything seriously and lapses in judgement. Still, the group is a close-knit bunch determined to stay alive at any cost. Charlie has not given up on finding Samantha, but the regrets of his life haunt him throughout the struggle for food, shelter, and avoiding packs of “infected”.
Dead Weight looks great. The cinematography by Travis Auclair is suitably dreary, enhanced by the frozen landscape of Wisconsin where it was shot. The cast, indeed, looks very authentically uncomfortable. The stage is set for a very convincing post-apocalypse, one where the wilderness itself is a character. Though there is no timeframe for the events (is this days or years after the outbreak?), the abandoned houses and landscape look suitably barren. The filmmakers utilize a small scale environment of farms and isolated homes, so it’s entirely possible to put yourself in the mindset of this being the end of the world.
The problems I have with Dead Weight are in the script, particularly the dialogue and character interactions. The biggest offender is that Charlie is a sarcastic character. This isn’t a bad thing per se. However, the dialogue is brimming with his quips throughout, whether it be in the calm stability of the “normal” world, or that of the post-apocalypse wasteland. His attitude belies the grim tone of the film. Often you’d see comic relief used to defuse tension, but here it gets annoying. I get that Bartlett and Pata are trying to inject an endearing realism into Charlie, but it didn’t quite work for me. It makes the film feel almost schizophrenic at times, especially as it weaves in and out from past to present. The humor feels somehow inappropriate, though that may have been the point.
Another shortcoming is that I wasn’t completely sold on Charlie and Samantha’s relationship. The moments they spend on screen doesn’t feel like a couple that’s spent intimate time together. There’s a serious lack of chemistry between the two. I realize this could be due to the rigid shoot schedule, the unfortunate casualties being adequate rehearsal time and the lack of multiple takes. It could also simply be miscasting. Since the bulk of the premise hinges on us caring about Charlie and Samantha finding one another, it’s a huge obstacle to overcome.
Charlie makes some destructive decisions in the final act. He’s determined to reach Wassau by any means. We realize the true connotation of the title “Dead Weight”. Bartlett and Pata deliver an appropriately downbeat ending that may have been more affecting had Charlie been sculpted with more sympathy.
Dead Weight is a film I really wanted to love. What kept me from complete enjoyment is a lack of investment in the characters. This is a huge liability when a film is character-driven. Dead Weight relies on achieving emotional impact, and, for me, falls short of that goal. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from watching based on that alone. The film is competent in every regard from sound design to stunts to the mood-enhancing score by Nicholas Elert. At times, Dead Weight does live up to its promise of a bleak and brutal post-apocalypse film. It just didn’t hit me in the gut in the way I hoped.
Dead Weight Trailer