Low-budget 'Crude' is the little movie that could've

July 14, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

It's a bad career move to put the word "Crude" in the title of a movie that cost $25,000.

But the surprise is that the film looks far from crude; in fact it looks as if it cost as much as $30,000 or even $35,000.

The neo-noir thriller, which opens today at the Westview, shows a great deal of promise on the part of its young director-writer, Alex Graves, but very little in the way of delivery. It's got a good sense of foreboding, but what's the point of foreboding if nothing really happens?

Graves has a real feeling for landscape and he's chosen the grim plains of Kansas (where he grew up) to frame his story of an unhappy wife, her deceitful husband, and the inevitable drifter who lives alone in a trailer. But we're not in "In Cold Blood" territory or "The Postman Always Rings Twice" land. No, we're in that other neighborhood of cinema -- the film school grad's first try.

As Graves has it, poor Karen Webb (Jennifer Taylor) lives in emotional isolation with her overbearing husband, Jim (Robert Peterson), a refinery executive. So lonely is she that she's begun to have strange and troubling dreams about a powerful young man emerging from a wild river.

One day, pulling into a gas station for $3 worth of regular (she buys gas in $3 dollops because it gives her something to do every day) she notices that the gas pump jockey (Aaron Shields) is the young man. She begins to follow him secretly, and notices odd links to her husband, through a rural nightclub called the Crude Oasis.

Graves is big on portent. Every other shot has the sort of shimmering, seething suggestion of concealed violence or mayhem. The performances, particularly Taylor's, are quite good. But the film gets all wound up and then fizzles like a whoopee cushion detonated by someone lacking the weight to generate a maximum punch line.

The young director seems most influenced by the cult hero Nick Roeg, whose "Don't Look Now" (1971) is a classic in the chilling menace-beneath-the-surface genre. But in that film, the menace turns out to be real. In "Crude Oasis," Graves can't come up with any save the most banal of resolutions.

'The Crude Oasis'

Starring Jennifer Taylor and Aaron Shields

Directed by Alex Graves

Released by Miramax

Unrated (sexual situations)

... **

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