Scott Ziehl reportedly decided he had to make a movie built
around some sort of vehicle. He chose an ambulance for its "visual
and symbolic power". Upon further research, he discovered that
emergency medical technicians tended to be recent college graduates,
working for little pay yet because of the uniforms and other
accouterments (like blazing sirens) they are imbued with almost
mythic powers. In an effort to dispel those beliefs, he set about working
on BROKEN VESSELS, a gritty, depressing character study of two
young EMTs in Los Angeles. Tom (Jason London) appears to be a
clean-cut, wholesome lad who has moved from Pennsylvania to
Los Angeles. He charms his way into working for Mr. Chen (James
Hong), the owner of a fleet of ambulances. Tom is partnered
with Jimmy (Todd Field, who did double duty as a co-producer),
a loose cannon who serves as id to Tom's ego.
Scripted by Ziehl, David Baehr and John McMahon, the film may
be seen as a cautionary tale gone awry. It is meant to be a trip to
hell as experienced by Tom with Jimmy as his guide. Field makes
the veteran driver a powerful figure — he's that person who through
sheer force of manipulation gets the weak to do his bidding. Sensing
that vulnerability in London's Tom, Jimmy strikes and entices his
protégé with drugs, wanton sex and petty thievery. He also makes
ironic fun of his stoned out neighbor Suzy (an over-the-top Susan
Traylor) yet shows his tender side dealing with Gramps (Patrick
Cranshaw), an elderly addict. Of course, there's also the requisite
good girl (Emmy-winner Roxana Zal, who also served as a producer)
— someone who is more a plot device than a real character.
That's part of the problem with BROKEN VESSELS — it comes
off as if the filmmakers couldn't make up their minds exactly what
kind of movie to make. Is it a slice-of-life melodrama built around
charismatic but ultimately unredeemable characters? Is it a cautionary
tale of the effects of stress and drug abuse? A combination of both?
Or something else entirely? Yet there is something to the film; I
found I couldn't look away as much as I might want to do so. It
is the equivalent of witnessing a traffic accident in slow motion.
What made it palatable was the work of Todd Field, an
underrated indie actor-director. It is often said that actors relish
playing the villain and Field proves no exception. His Jimmy is both
slick huckster and unrelenting manipulator. He is certainly not the
kind of person you would want to meet, but you cannot take your
eyes off him in this context. Jason London tries to meet his
intensity but he lacks the technique — he is adequate when he
should be impressive. Zal is virtually wasted while Cranshaw
delivers a fully-realized portrait of an old man whose life has been
spent as a slave to drugs. Ziehl shows promise as a filmmaker
and undoubtedly will go on to better things. As it is BROKEN VESSELS
gives hints as to his capabilities and that isn't such a bad thing.
MPAA Rating: R
|© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.