Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Broken Horses: Bollywood in America: Does it work? I say yes.

If Broken Horses was Vidhu Vinod Chopra asking, “Will American audiences connect with a Bollywood-style story told with white Americans set in America?” The answer was a resounding, “No.” The film is currently sitting at a 21% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. The critics hated it and mainstream audiences, for the most part, ignored it. But does that make it a bad film?

The plot of Broken Horses is rooted in Chopra’s 1989 film Parinda. Set in the rural, hardscrabble West, the film follows two brothers, Buddy (the elder, Chris Marquette) and Jake (the younger, Anton Yelchin), who lose their father (Thomas Jane) as children. Jake is an aspiring concert violinist and when the film begins, we find out he has run off to New York City and is about to get married to the beautiful Vittoria (Maria Valverde). He gets a call from his brother, Buddy, who says he has a wedding present for him but it needs to be given in person. Vittoria encourages Jake to return home for a visit and, reluctantly, Jake does just that.

Buddy is mentally slow and has fallen under the spell of local bad guy Julius Hench (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Hench has paired Buddy up with a babysitter, Eric (Juan Riedinger), whom Buddy seems to think of as a surrogate brother. Jake is wary of Eric from the beginning, but we (and I think Jake himself) are unsure whether it’s jealousy or fear. Jake feels a growing dread, an unease that reaches an early peak as he drives out to meet his old music teacher, Ignacio (Sean Patrick Flannery). What he finds is horrifying. Ignacio reduced to utter squalor, jerkily driving a wheelchair around a fire kept burning in the middle of the living room. Ignacio has been broken. He speaks in odd phrases: “Two legs for two tickets.”

Jake has no idea what to do. One senses he’s ready to run all the way back to New York but something stops him. Eric, who has been sent to kill him. Jake is faced with a choice and when it comes right down to it, Jake chooses to stay and fight for his brother.

Hench is more than a bit mentally unbalanced himself and as the film unfolds we--and Jake--realize just how strong his hold over Buddy is. In Jake’s absence, Hench and his henchmen (prominently featuring Wes Chatham as the loyal “Ace” and Jeremy Luke as “Franco”) have become a surrogate family for Buddy, which Hench encourages. Jake realizes the only way to get to Buddy is to join the gang and destroy that trust from the inside.

Running behind all this is a feud between Hench and a Mexican drug lord named Garza (Jordi Caballero) as well as Buddy’s wedding present, a beautiful ranch he’s built for his brother.

For all intents and purposes Broken Horses is classic Hindi masala filmmaking and it works surprisingly well without songs. It takes a few minutes to sink into the heightened emotional reality of the world but once you’re in, it’s all heartbreak. Chopra builds toward an exquisite peak of pure emotion, a fear and dread mixed with empathy. We know one of our brothers must perform a horrible act of betrayal and Chopra let’s us hang, on edge, waiting for it.

Chopra’s script, written with Abhijat Joshi (3 Idiots, PK), is very well served by actors pulled from the heightened worlds of genre film and soap opera. Ironically enough I think it’s a better film with American soap opera actors than it would have been using the bulked up producer’s sons and fashion model-cum-actresses cluttering up mainstream movies in Bollywood. Anton Yelchin, as Jake, isn’t quite a Michael Corleone, deliberately turning his back on the family business. Yelchin shows us a conflicted Jake, one who half-knew there was something to avoid at home but it was almost as if he didn’t know then he wouldn’t be responsible. What I liked about Jake that I don’t often like about these white college boys returning home is that Jake wasn’t the director’s stand-in, he was just another character. And so Jake--and Yelchin--were allowed more complexity. We didn’t have to like him unconditionally in order to feel something about the story. Yelchin’s Jake is subtle and very human.

Chris Marquette as Buddy is really the heart of the film, though. Buddy is so innocent and so trusting but there’s also depth. Marquette really sells Buddy as a complex character, despite his limited intellect, Buddy is allowed to hold secrets of his own, all the more powerful because nobody suspects him. I was genuinely touched when Buddy’s face lights up as he realizes that his brother does in fact love him, that it’s not just words. In the hands of a different kind of actor, an actor not willing to commit, a character like Buddy could easily veer into parody, a knowing, winking “take” on Lon Chaney Jr in Of Mice and Men rather than a fully realized person.

The featured cast are just as good-- Jordi Caballero as the oily Mexican crime lord, Sean Patrick Flannery’s unhinged Ignacio, and Maria Valverde as the sweet natured Vittoria. And Vincent D'Onofrio as Mr. Hench is pure villainous gold. He chewed through the scenery just as well as Nana Patekar did in Parinda and that is a huge compliment coming from me. I’d suggest any Indian producers looking for an exotic villain for their next masala film check out his performance here. It’s just the right balance of campy and creepy.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been re-watching Twin Peaks over the last month but what struck me most of all about Broken Horses was how much Bollywood in America looks like David Lynch: the heightened reality, the stagy dialogue and set-pieces, the way emotion is amped up, the moodiness, the humor, the incredible earnestness underpinning everything, the darkness of the human soul. If Broken Horses didn’t work with general American audiences, it did work with me. And maybe it will work with you. The title comes from a speech Hench gives Buddy towards the end of the film. Has Buddy has been "broken", is he in control of Hench? It’s certainly worth watching to find out if you’re in the mood for melodrama.

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