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Scalene (Zack Parker, 2011)
Starting with its shocking opening sequence, in which a woman arrives at another’s house with a gun in hand, Scalene works to keep the viewer unmoored. Whenever it seems to establish itself as one thing, it promptly shifts directions. These shifts become literal in the case of the film’s chronology, which slides back and forth in time, in pursuit of answers that might not ever come. When one finishes watching Scalene, one isn’t left confused, exactly, but every scene end inspires true uncertainty about what will come next.
Another thing that Scalene provides is a too-rare chance for Margo Martindale to display the range of her talents. A recognizable and prolific character actress, she always seems to shine when given a juicy role (Alexander Payne’s Paris je t’aime segment and the TV series Justified come to mind). Here Martindale plays a mother saddled with the care of her invalid son. Her characterization initially begs for sympathy, but as the film develops, our impressions of the woman shift. By the story’s end, the true complexity of her performance has been made clear. Her commitment to this character is admirable, and she uses both her physical bulk and her trembling eyes to equal effect over the course of the film. Hanna Hall, who plays Martindale’s well-intentioned foil, is nearly as impressive, if not quite as ostentatious in her acting. Adam Scarimbolo, as the third “narrator”, manages to do a lot with a role that gives him no dialogue.
Martindale’s strong performance may be the best reason to watch Scalene, but it is hardly the only reason. Parker’s work here is provocative, ambitious and sure-handed. A skillful manipulator, he shifts our sympathies throughout the film with aplomb. As Scalene’s title implies, any triangular relationship is likely to be beset by inequalities. This methodical thriller becomes doubly troubling by ensuring that all of its pieces, in the final appraisal, don’t fit together.