For its entire 80-or-so minutes, Promiseland plunges the viewer into a cold-blooded underworld of sex work and human traffickers, punctuated by jolts of gunplay and hand-to-hand combat. And then, about halfway through, a killer with a taste for point-blank headshots is asked to name his favourite movie. His reply, after a thoughtful beat: “Death Wish V.”
Kirk Caouette chuckles as he recalls, “Yeah, that was kind of thrown in on the day,” but the laughs end there. Shot in the Downtown Eastside, the rain-streaked, neon-daubed world of Promiseland is a hellish place, relieved only by the growing relationship between jaded sex worker Velvet (Andrea Stefancikova) and the postmilitary avenging angel Victor, played by Caouette.
It’s a mood piece that the filmmaker himself struggles to describe, part Taxi Driver and part Wong Kar-wai, but with the superior action sequences you’d expect from a veteran stunt professional like Caouette. His charming debut as a writer-director with 2012’s Hit ’n Strum came about due to career fatigue.
“After doubling the lead in Elektra,” he says, “I was like, ‘I’m done. I’m making a musical.’ ”
His second feature seems more like a full-on confrontation with the meaning of his work. Victor is the kind of PTSD–suffering super soldier Hollywood loves to elevate into an action hero, a morally corrosive cliché that’s almost invisible because it’s so ubiquitous.
“Eighty percent of television and movies involve murder,” he says. “In stunts that’s pretty much all we do. We create violence and death on camera, we simulate killing or hurting people badly. I guess it’s kind of an escape. It’s like watching sports or whatever, two warriors going into battle. We’re fascinated by it. I don’t understand it, but I do know it all ends up leaving you with a hole in your soul. Almost all of my colleagues, everyone has an existential crisis after about 10 or 15 years, and a lot of people get into writing or acting or poetry or other things that provide relief from that feeling.”
Promiseland fascinates because these worlds are in collision. Caouette’s Victor maintains a darkly poetic internal monologue. The violence—sudden and explosive—is purging. “I don’t think there’s anything less understood than the human pain behind these action scenes,” he says. “I got married a couple years ago and my wife didn’t really believe that stunt people existed. ‘You’re not really doing those things!’ ”
Chuckling again, he affirms: “Yes, we are.”
Promiseland screens at the Village 8 Cinemas next Thursday (December 5) and the Maury Young Arts Centre next Friday (December 6).