The Detective’s Lover is not the first time we’ve heard from writer-director Travis Mills and Arizona-based Running Wild Films in this space; a few months ago I was able to look at The Big Something, the filmmaker and studio’s first feature. Making this the first time that I’ve been able to track a director’s evolution in this feature, and I am happy to report that Mills has become considerably stronger in his storytelling skills: if his first movie was saturated throughout with a certain “geez, guys, can you believe we’re actually making a movie?” feeling of goofing around (and not an unwelcome feeling; but it left the thing awfully slight), The Detective’s Lover is considerably more focused and unified by a much tighter and more present visual aesthetic; the narrative stakes are far higher; the only way in which it can be safely called a “worse” movie, in fact, is that the acting is more inconsistent, but this is the risk of hiring nonprofessionals, in indie movies as much as in big-budget attempts at realism.
The film is the story of an Arizona newsman, Scott Miller (Mills himself), who is tired of being a common reporter – I am happy to report he gets called out on this by a friend, who points out that in today’s economy, nobody with a good-paying job ought to complain about being bored (and of course doubly so in as plagued an industry as the news, though the movie doesn’t make this point), and really, the entire 88 minutes of the film can be read as an extended demonstration of how foolish Scott’s romantic ideas were, and that it had been better for him to shut up about his first world problems – and has started writing a book on private detectives. His first interview subject, Dave Goodman (Dean Veglia) isn’t much help, but he mentions a much better lead, a shady fellow named John D. (Rob Edwards), who starts off by berating Scott for having such a ’40s-style understanding of what the life of a detective is like, and tries to turn him off of the book entirely. This naturally only increases Scott’s commitment to his subject, and he does a bit of detective work on his own, leading him to a certain woman named Christine (Cara Nicole), romantically attached to John D. and at the center of what turns out to be a dangerously complex web of lies and crime, before it turns out even further to be not actually complex so much as it is horribly nasty in how straightforward it all is (in truth, the concluding twists are the one part of the story that I didn’t buy; it feels less like an organic extension of the plot than an attempt to take it to a place that nobody would ever predict on account of it being insane). And of course he falls deeply in love with Christine, because this is a film noir homage.
All of this plays out in digital black and white, with a jazz soundtrack throughout, and you’d have to be pretty willfully blind not to figure out early on that it’s all a genre riff, exploring the tropes of 1940s film noir in a grubby modern setting. And it does this rather well: cinematographer Dave Surber isn’t trying to directly re-create the look of a ’40s film any more than Mills’s stunningly vulgar script wants to mimic the patois of one, in both cases the point being more to do the same things in the context of 2010s Phoenix and Winslow, AZ, and in the even more specific context of microbudget cinema (setting aside the enforced cheapness that dictates the film’s look, The Detective’s Lover seems curiously aware that it’s a regional indie film, letting the discord between the story content and the way it’s being presented reflect on the somewhat ad hoc nature of the plot the protagonist uncovers). This is at any rate quite an improvement over most movies like this one, including The Big Something itself, which are usually content not to have any aesthetic at all.
The acting veers from very good (Scott Scheall as Eddie, Scott’s friend, is a particular stand-out) to broad and hammy, or stiff and over-enunciated; thankfully, most of the worst performances are tied to the smallest characters. Mills’s own performance is a bit wobbly, as will happen when indie directors take on acting duties (or any actors, really), though once the rough exposition stage of the script is through, and he gets to be more re-active than active, the actor-director’s constantly perplexed look ends up working mostly in the film’s favor.
What matters most, though, is that the thing moves: at less than 90 minutes, it’s of course not very long in the first place, but it’s shocking how briskly it drives through the several turns of the plot even so, and this at least earns Mills all my respect: when too many actual, major filmmakers have forgotten the fine art of telling a story quickly and then getting the hell out, it’s pleasing to encounter a movie so aware of how to do what it needs to in just an hour and a half, without padding or unnecessary digressions. Best of all, it’s quick enough that the parts that don’t work (the exposition, as I said; or the villain’s “why I did it” speech that feels like nothing that any human being in a similar situation would ever do or say) don’t have time to make an impression, and the parts that work really well (Mills and Scheall’s interaction, or most of an extended sequence in a low-rent motel, late in the movie) don’t have to compete for attention. Its microscopic budget and affection for such old-fashioned narrative tricks certainly limits the natural audience that The Detective’s Lover can hope to find, but it’s quite an appealing nasty lark of a mystery/romance that certainly starts to pay off the promise of the director’s first movie, and gives me hope for a third, if such a thing ever materialises.