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Art Over Everything
A filmmaker absorbs his own plot in "The Devil's Tongue."
First-time feature filmmakers have it rough, especially if their name is Julian Gowdy. For most of these directors, there is this unspoken need and expectation to prove themselves as capable storytellers, no matter if they previously made short films or not. Gowdy’s film The Devil’s Tongue, meanwhile, had received a Covid-19 grant of about $10,000, which made up the entirety of his budget. On top of everything, for a filmmaker to work under the thumb of silly expectations and work with desperately needed emergency relief money, making a compelling and coherent movie is almost too stressful to achieve.
But achieve, Julian Gowdy has. His film wears all of its budget on the screen, in every scene, and through each performance. Rough around the edges here and there and sometimes a little lost in its own story, The Devil’s Tongue succeeds in an entertaining and sometimes unsettling manner.
Director Julian Gowdy plays, in most meta form, a version of himself (also named Julian), struggling to complete a film that he seems to have been working on for years. He’s clearly in over his head, as his anxieties come from artistic dread more than the practical means of finishing a project. It’s in these scenes, when the camera lingers on his sad and stiff demeanor, that the movie stretches itself and comes to a slow slag. It’s hard to direct yourself, I imagine, but it’s worth noting since The Devil’s Tongue hinges so much on this character’s existential issues related to doing something greater than great. He comes off as completely full of himself, to the point of being unlikable from the get-go. His eventual fall from grace isn’t tragic, but inevitable.
That being said, the performances and the elements around Gowdy are quite good and even memorable. Actor Philip Bushman, who plays the adult son of a hot-shot Hollywood Producer, is particularly excellent. He spends the majority of his time chained to a throne, where he is waterboarded and degraded. His character is tricked into “acting” for Julian, and subsequently goes to a real dark and emotional place, expressing the kind of horror that can only come from experience and backstory. In a later scene, a drunk friend of his sits next to him, and they chit-chat about the woman who flirted with him earlier. It’s an amazing range from such an unknown performer, and I hope Bushman does more movies.
The Devil’s Tongue might be a bit amateurish in parts, but this goes along with its charm and its story. The film within the film is being shot on what I think is a VHS camcorder, which of course is an aesthetic and a prop on its own, expressing just how far below the ladder Julian is in the movie. There’s also a minor but important subplot involving sobriety, which, when involving Bushman, is quite heartbreaking and cruel. When the film gets hardcore is when it shines. When it brings out the devil is when the fun happens.
No matter how it was made, The Devil’s Tongue - while it could stand to dial back the struggling artistic jerk tale and dial up the filmmaking as pain aspect - stands out as a fresh example of true independent filmmaking from a fresh new voice. Rough for sure, but unexpected and pretty daring too. Good job. 2.5/5
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