Illtown: Gomez Third Feature, Starring Michael Rapaport and Lili Taylor

Illtown, Gomez’s third and most experimental feature, came out of the dark place in which he found himself after losing control over the movie New Jersey Drive.

He told the Village Voice: “The mood and tempo of Illtown express what I felt like going into it. I had to make it to come out the other end. It was incredibly hard, but it was really satisfying working on a more intimate scale again.”

The intent was to go to Florida to make a “Hong Kong thriller,” but insufficient funds forced Gomez to take risks and be more daring. Indeed, the film’s radical form represents a stylistic antithesis to Laws of Gravity. It shows again Gomez’s attraction to outcasts and criminals, but this time, his haunting look at a Miami drug-dealing circle is staged in a dreamlike, hallucinatory manner, infused with the fatalistic noir notion of one’s inability to escape the past.

The stylistic influences of Japanese Renaissance man, Takeshi Kitano’s (Sonatine, Fireworks) and the Chinese ghost films are evident. The film’s dreamlike rhythm differs from the frantic pace of Laws of Gravity; here the pace is more reflective and calculated. Gomez transmutes genre conventions, combining formalism (the conclusion book-ends the beginning) with disjunctive editing that sometimes races, sometimes lingers leisurely and moodily. The mise-en-scene juxtaposes static compositions with Gomez’s trademark dynamically kinetic action sequences.

More violent than Gomez’ previous films, Illtown presents crime life from a street point of view. The story follows Dante (Michael Rapaport), his girlfriend Mickey (Lili Taylor) and their illicit, if profitable world developed as street kids. What was once an exciting life is now taking a physical and emotional toll. Dante and Mickey want out, yearning to start a normal family life (have a baby), but they’re caught up in a vicious circle. Like Laws of Gravity, the narrative impetus is provided by a character from their past, Gabriel (Adam Trese), an old business partner who has just been released from jail. Bent on revenge, Gabriel slowly poisons Dante’s business with the help of a crooked cop.

But Dante and Mickey’s “normal” aspirations don’t ring true in the dramatic context of their personal histories. And, with the exception of Mickey and her younger deaf brother, the characters are not as engaging as those in Laws of Gravity.

Even so, Gomez’s talent for mixing violence and tenderness is evident throughout. He adds to the more familiar tale of betrayal and vengeance the theme of generational gap. The veteran drug dealers, who have gone too soft, are now challenged by more ruthless upstarts; Florida school children play the low-level dealers with scary authenticity.

Suffused with devices that generate ambiguity, the story is told in flashback, which itself is punctuated with snippets from the characters’ pasts. As Dante’s nemesis and doppelganger, Gabriel resembles a fallen angel; his entrances and exits are depicted through dissolves. Slowly fading into scenes, he’s like a ghost who materializes in the lives of the others.

The stylized staging and cutting suggest that some of the confrontations might only exist in the characters’ imagination. Isolated moments of daily life are conveyed in fractured time frames, and certain sequences achieve brilliance, such as one hallucinatory foreboding view of Mickey going out to check the club’s surroundings. Jim Denault’s roving camera, at once rough-edged and dreamlike, highlights the visual contrast between Florida’s glaring sun and the nightglow of its street lamps.