On paper, the premise of Devon Parks’ debut feature The Riot Act stands out from the crowd of period dramas set in the Southern US. Two years following the murder of one of its actors, an opera house in a small town in Arkansas plans to put on a performance to re-open its doors for good. Leading the operation is the local doctor Willard Pearrow (Brett Cullen) whose daughter, Allye (Lauren Sweetser), disappeared on the night of the murder. Pearrow entrusts foreman August (Connor Price) with inviting an innovative Vaudeville troupe to take part in the opera house’s opening night, but one of the performers has more than theatre on their mind. Betrayal, revenge, and justice are all at play as the actor’s motives intertwine with those of a masked figure who has been haunting Doctor Pearrow since the tragedy. The story promises tension, thrills, and a whole lot of twists and turns, but the execution of it mostly doesn’t deliver.
The film’s exposition sets the mystery-thriller tone well. Tension and intrigue build through the eerie score and the intertwining of light and shadows, and the drama heightens when the stage actor is suddenly murdered. However, much of what happens after that lacks the atmosphere that the beginning of the film established. The masked figure is so swiftly and nonchalantly introduced that if you blinked, you’d miss it. The only thing that’s vaguely ‘mysterious’ about the figure is that we do not know their identity. Considering they play a huge part in the narrative, it’s baffling that no attempt is made to make their introduction menacing, or even important, through the score or cinematography.
The direction and shot composition choices in some scenes are equally confusing. When Pearrow first meets and talks to Cyrus (Micah Hauptman), the leader of the vaudeville troupe, in a shot-reverse-shot, the two men are standing far apart and are framed separately in the centre of a medium long shot. It makes the conversation appear awkward and overly theatrical, as if they were performing in a theatre and trying to fill the entire stage. At times, the script and performances also lack subtlety and veer towards the melodramatic.
After stumbling through a lot of its runtime, The Riot Act finally finds its footing towards the third act. The dynamic between the masked figure and the performer intensifies as their revenge plan gets complicated, and the theme of social class division comes to the forefront after having been hinted at a few times throughout the film. The camerawork becomes more varied and cinematic, and the acting and dialogue become stronger and more natural. This final act is more engrossing than the first two acts combined, and it ends on a mysterious but oddly satisfying cliffhanger. The Riot Act is not the enthralling thriller that it could have been, but its solid finale does show some promise.
by Holly Weaver
Holly Weaver is currently studying French and Spanish at the University of Leeds, and has spent her year abroad studying film in Montréal. She is enraptured by pre-1960s cinema and some of her favourite films include Singin’ in the Rain, City Lights and The Crime of Monsieur Lange. You can find her tweeting and letterboxd’ing at @drivermiller.