Author’s Disclosure: I’m friends with Mark Savage so don’t think of what follows as a review. Consider it more of an essay, a response to the work informed by what I’ve learned through my interactions with Mark. The following piece is a new format designed offer a personalized point of view that acts as an accompaniment to other reviews. Hopefully, what I lack in objectivity on this film can be made up for with some unique subjective material.
The key thing I’ve learned about Mark Savage during the time we’ve been friends is that he is an independent in the truest sense of the word. He knows what he is passionate about, what he believes in, is honest about both of those things and committed to pursuing his vision of cinema in a way reflecting those passions and beliefs. He’s been making films since childhood and getting them commercially released since the late ’80s – and they’re all as iconoclastic as the previous sentences suggest.
Purgatory Road is his latest released feature and it offers what has become the standard Savage mix of the polished and the provocative. The story focuses on two brothers bound together by a childhood tragedy involving their father losing his fortune. Between childhood and adulthood, they got religion and grew into men who drive a converted mobile home through the countryside containing their own portable confessional booth. Vincent (Gary Cairns) is the priest of the duo while Michael (Luke Albright) drives the vehicle and handles collections.
The problem with this setup is Vincent is prone to killing the people whose confessions strike him as unconvincing or hypocritical. Michael is obedient but troubled by his brother’s mission while Vincent justifies his murderous ways because he’s getting rid of sinners and rebuilding their father’s lost fortune. Vincent is becoming more violent, which brings in unwanted attention, and further complication is caused by romantic interest: Michael is tempted away from the situation by kind waitress Ruby (Sylvia Grace Crim) and Vincent is distracted by Mary Francis (Trista Robinson), a young drifter with her own addiction to killing.
The result has elements of a horror film but doesn’t play out in a way that neatly follows genre rules. There’s a body count but the story doesn’t have the steady build of a rollercoaster-style horror flick nor is it built around suspense. It’s more of a character-driven drama where the dramatic stakes involve murder and bloodshed.
It also doesn’t play by the usual dramatic rules: viewers might wonder why it’s so easy for Vincent to kill many of his victims or why Michael tolerates the escalation of his brother’s tactics and abuse. As far as criticisms, it would be fair to say Michael’s character arc is a bit underserved by the story and we never get inside the struggle that keeps him so docile for so long.
That said, the patience demanded by the willful rule-breaking at play in Purgatory Road gets repaid in other ways. Indie films marketed to the horror community are often self-consciously jokey or use gratuitous fan service to cover up for their lack of polish. Purgatory Road doesn’t play these games. It’s refreshingly serious and adult in its approach to topics like religious repression, dark sexuality, the ripple effects of childhood trauma, etc. It never panders to viewers and is surprisingly unconcerned with telling them how to feel about what they are watching.
The film also shows an impressive sense of craft for a low-budget picture. Andrew Giannetta’s digital cinematography boasts careful compositions and lighting while the somber, rich score from Glen Gabriel evokes emotion without resorting to manipulative techniques. Such elements give Purgatory Road a sense of substance that compliments the director’s somber approach.
I feel like I have a slight advantage on other viewers tuning in to Purgatory Road because I’ve had a chance to talk discuss films and filmmaking with Mark. An important thing others should know is that his love for cinema has tremendous breadth and depth, covering everything from the toniest arthouse fare to the grungiest extreme films. He values them equally and is frank about what he likes and dislikes, without fear of how anyone else will judge his interests.
When I look at Purgatory Road, I see him mixing and matching his varied influences with a similar lack of concern for playing to critics or the audience. He’s not afraid to have horror movie gore sit alongside moments of quiet family drama or film a pivotal murder scene in a way that concentrates on the perverse joy the killer takes in this cruel act. He’s got his interests to explore and he’s going to explore them on his own terms. He’ll reach out to the audience to a certain degree with craftsmanship and a sense of aesthetics but they have to pick up the rest of the slack themselves. It’s not the easiest path for a filmmaker to follow but one must admire Savage’s commitment to it.