Inspired by Kevin Fortuna's 2014 short story collection of the same name, Michael Clayton's The Dunning Man is proving to be quite the success on the indie fest circuit after its world premiere at Cinequest in San Jose in March along with screenings at Atlantic City's Garden State Film Festival, the Sacramento Film Fest, where it picked up the Best Feature Award, and most recently the Harlem International Film Festival along with others.
The Dunning Man centers around Connor Ryan (James Carpinello, Gotham), an Atlantic City native who returns home to his Uncle Bishop (Tom Kemp, Manchester by the Sea) from New York City after losing his job and his girlfriend. In an effort to rebuild his life, Connor takes a gig as an apartment manager at a low-rise condo complex sitting in the shadow of a high-end casino. Prospects would be on the rise for Connor with one small problem - his tenants don't want to pay up. Forced to get his cash by any means necessary, Connor has to take on a pair of Chechen animal trainers with underworld ties, a formerly successful rapper with still hard-partying ways (Nicoye Banks, Focus), and, somewhat more pleasantly, an easy to talk to single mother (Dawn Lyen-Gardner, Queen Sugar).
While you might expect that The Dunning Man would be nothing more than your usual Atlantic City-based crime thriller, rest assured that Clayton has crafted much more in telling the story of Connor Ryan, an ordinary joe living an ordinary life and somehow trying to make sense of it all while improving himself along the way. He's a good guy, but not entirely a good guy. As played by Carpinello, Connor is just edgy enough to keep us intrigued by his presence throughout the film just wondering what he might do next. This isn't trumped up Hollywood B.S., but more along the lines of one man trying to do the right thing while doing battle with both external and internal influences along the way.
It works. It works really well.
It helps, I suppose, to have Fortuna's involvement with the film as a producer. The film's got such a tremendous vibe that it made me want to immediately head out to pick up Fortuna's short stories. The film's production quality is solid throughout, most notably Brendan Ryan's stellar original music and top notch lensing by Petr Cikhart. Truth be told, there's not a weakness in the production, though, I suppose if you're looking hard enough you'll be able to tell, in fleeting moments, the film's low-budget roots.
But, trust me. You have to be looking for it.
Carpinello's a winning presence here, infinitely compelling yet edgy and quietly charismatic. While the entire ensemble cast is solid, additional kudos must be given to Nicoye Banks as Stryker Jones, a cocky rapper who is simultaneously irritating as hell and instantly forgivable. Langston Fishburne, that would be the great Laurence Fishburne's son, is here as Jerrod and shows that those acting genes have, indeed, been handed down.
The Dunning Man is a quieter gem of a film than you might expect, a character-driven and story focused film with a healthy dose of action and more than a little humor and heart along the way. The film is continuing on the film festival circuit and if you get a chance to check it out you'll definitely want to do so.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic