On Demand: In This Gray Place (2018) - Reviewed

Chamber pieces, those films which box the characters into one room for the duration of the story, can make some inspired and wonderful exercises in narrative fiction.  By quarantining the character(s) and the audience together, you share in the experience of confinement with slowly growing claustrophobic tension permeating the proceedings.  Not only do they present endless possibilities, they’re an inexpensive way to make pictures on the fly with a little ingenuity and fine acting along the way to make it all work.  Most importantly, the film gives the actors center stage and a chance to shine as they rise to the occasion of shouldering a picture all by themselves.       

Enter up-and-coming actor Aleksander Ristic in his second collaboration with writer-director R.D. Womack II.  After the made-for-TV thriller Call of the Wolf with what is ostensibly their joint first feature together In This Gray Place, the similarly minimalist simmer cooker boils down to a one man show with Ristic as Aaron, a petty criminal who holes himself up in a squalid bathroom after a heist goes tragically wrong.  Wounded in a gunfight with only his cellphone serving as his window to the outside world, he finds himself surrounded by police squads trying to work their way past the barricade as time runs out for our troubled antihero. 

This micro-budget non-judgmental character study is something of a little tour de force from this actor-director tag team, going new heights visually despite the enclosure of the bathroom set built in the director’s backyard garage.  An arresting downer sure to leave you feeling battered and broken but inspired by the passionate central performance onscreen, In This Gray Place like the filthy restroom is an unpleasant place to be navigated through by Ristic’s acting. 

A strong new actor who has been around in bit parts for some time but only now is making his presence known, Ristic is given the unenviable task of playing a desperate loser trying to do good by his girlfriend Laura (Angela Nordeng).  We can’t identify with Aaron’s actions but we can most certainly understand the emotions driving them.  Though the picture becomes somewhat tedious in the mid-section with much of the drama surrounding the events leading up to Aaron hiding in the bathroom, Ristic sells it so well we remain caught up in his dilemma anyway.

For being on such a small set, In This Gray Place is remarkably visual with Naeem Seirafi’s camera moving about the bathroom freely like a fly on the wall buzzing about occasionally as lights flicker on and off and temperatures rise.  Polish composer Miro Kepinski’s original score is at once hopeless and mournful electronic score punctuated by piano cues amid key use of sonic distortion.  Sonically, you’re in as deep of a suffocating hole as Aaron, trying to breath, see and hear as the reality of his world becomes increasingly foggy.

Ostensibly a stage play featuring only three actors on and off-screen with Ristic carrying the film upon his shoulders, In This Gray Place echoes the bygone era of United Artists made actor’s pieces of the mid-70s.  A time when all you needed were a few actors, small crew, a camera and some creative ingenuity, you didn’t need much more ingredients than that to hit a cinematic home run.  While In This Gray Place falls somewhat short of that goal, there’s enough here to still make a solid and affecting little drama about the depths to which people will sink for someone else.

--Andrew Kotwicki