Indie cinema can result in some fascinating pictures that nonetheless feel a little overambitious. Such is the case with The Riot Act, a story of violence, vaudeville and visions of the spooky kind. It tries to touch on a lot of subjects relevant to both now and its early 20th century setting, biting off more than it can chew. Director Devon Parks’ film feels like it could give a lot more by giving a lot less, but there is still plenty to mull over by the time the credits role.
The film takes its time building up to things, the high stakes of the opening and ending separated by a less dramatic midsection. During this long spool it tries to include conversations on themes ranging from racism to sexism to theatricalism (a lot of ‘isms’). None of these get the attention they need to feel like a full part of the story, the former in particular brought up for a brief spell and then never mentioned again. The Riot Act needs more faith in its central premise of a daughter’s anger and an old man’s haunting guilt, which is strong enough to carry the film. As it is, it feels slightly overworked.
Parks’ saving grace is his eye for style, the story sinking nicely into its period setting with some atmospheric scene setting and mannerisms. The suited masked men especially are a great touch, instilling all kinds of creepy into otherwise mundane moments. Their full potential is realised towards a great finale, one that carries a satisfying sense of poetic justice. You feel like The Riot Act could go much deeper down the rabbit hole if you wanted to, but what you are treated to nonetheless ticks all the boxes.
The lead performances are unlikely to linger in the mind, but are otherwise solid. Dr. Pearrow (Brett Cullen, Joker’s Thomas Wayne) has the kind of worn-down grit and frustration that his character type demands, not feeling especially original but well done nonetheless. The ferocity comes from his estranged daughter Allye (Lauren Sweetser, the standout performer), who never loses a hell-bent on revenge look from her eye. Beyond them however, the cast feels a little too large, with some interesting characters – notably the theatre company’s director Cyrus Grimes – feeling underdeveloped.
The quicker moments fail to make up for the dips in pace, and a more singular story is definitely needed to exploit the premise to its full potential. Yet, The Riot Act is as solid as many mass-produced period drama you are likely to get. It tries too hard, but Parks’ design props the film up just enough to make it worth sitting through until an expertly staged conclusion.