Filmed on location in Lake Charles, Louisiana, A Lesson in Cruelty is a 73-minute dark comedy picked up by indie distributor Indie Rights and with a story that seems right at home amidst the current political and social climate with cruelty having run completely amok.
The film stars Justin Lebrun as Julian Hassole, a powerful egomaniac who has managed to gain a high degree of success, stature and notoriety without seeming to have a shred of human decency.
In fact, if you're to believe him, that's exactly why he's become the man he is today.
The problem may be, of course, that eventually everyone around him tires of his abusive treatment and in advance of his 40th birthday it's announced they're throwing him an "Ides of March" themed birthday party.
If you don't know what that means, let me assure you it's not really the compliment he believes it to be.
In coverage for the film, Los Angeles Times writer Katie Walsh beautifully and accurately notes that Lebrun's Hassole is a poor man's Neil LaBute character, a crass, misogynistic, racist dude who revels in his violation of nearly every taboo without one iota of remorse. Lebrun has fun with the character, as he should, though as written it's a character much more suited for the stage than for cinema where the electricity, tension and emotion that such a character doesn't have nearly the same impact.
A Lesson In Cruelty seems to want to exist as a pitch dark comedy, though it seldom ever achieves the level of actual laughs necessary to make such a claim. This isn't to say there's no value to be found in the familiar yet biting story. In fact, I'd say quite the opposite is true and especially toward the film's end.
While Lebrun is rock solid throughout A Lesson in Cruelty, the film's truly hidden gem comes in the form of an absolutely delightful and quietly hilarious Savannah Hastings as young Christine, a mysterious little girl whose mother works for Hassole and whose late night television viewing habits imply a twist in any perceived innocence. It's a terrific performance filled with wisely underplayed humor and just a hint of normalcy. Among the other supporting players, most of whom are tasked with convincingly portraying one-note caricatures, Australian actor Martin Copping is a gem as yarmulke wearing Sid and Sally McDonald also really shines here.
The first script from newcomer Gregory P. Wolk, A Lesson in Cruelty goes head first into the challenging task of presenting characters who get very little back story. By the time we meet them, Julian's already a major asshole and everyone around him is already burnt out to the point of wanting more than a little revenge. There's really not much in the way of sympathy to be found anywhere, a difficult way to approach a difficult, dark film.
Director Alexander Salazar, a veteran of multiple Hollywood productions, gives it a good go here but is challenged by material that feels more like a work in progress than a completed script. That said, there's some good ideas at work here and it'll be interesting to see where Wolk, who has two films already in post, goes in the future.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic