There are few filmmakers working today who are as unpredictable as Trent Haaga, as has written and directed several of the most jaw dropping films in recent years. Penning 2011’s Deadgirl to 2013’s Cheap Thrills, Haaga has had a knack for keeping audiences on their toes and the edge of their seats. He continues this trend as he returns to the director’s chair, after 2011’s Chop, with 68 Kill, a film the defies categorization and has Haaga’s big bloody thumbprint of his unique style squarely on it.
The film finds down on his luck Chip (played brilliantly by Matthew Gray Gubler) in the midst of a whirlwind romance with loose cannon Liza (AnnaLynne McCord). Neither has much of a job to speak of: Chip is clearing out septic tanks and Liza is sleeping with a sugar daddy to make ends meet. But Liza discovers that her benefactor has a safe full of $68,000 and hatches a plan for she and Chip to steal it all. To say things go awry is an understatement and after a healthy dose of murder and kidnapping, Chip finds himself on the run. To say much more about the plot would do the film a disservice, suffice to say Chip and his captive Violet (Alisha Boe) are on a collision course with disaster.
One of the things I appreciate about Haaga’s writing is his ability to consistently up the ante while also staying ahead of his audience. it is a difficult task to accomplish but he does it beautifully. Like Cheap Thrills before it, 68 Kill doesn’t let the audience catch it’s breath before throwing them the next curveball or gory set piece. Also, like that previous work, Haaga injects beautiful stretches of tenderness, making us feel for most, if not all, of the characters before he sends them back into the meat grinder. He also plays with not only genre expectations but also gender roles to great effect. He takes the tired tropes that we’ve seen in action and exploitation films for years and gives them a shake. This is a wonderful skill but one that needs the talent on screen to back it up, which is never a problem here.
Having been a fan of both Gubler and McCord from several of the films of Richard Bates Jr. it was fantastic to see them in a larger capacity together. The chemistry, fucked up and unnatural as it sometimes is, sends both of them sailing through the film in a fury of bloodshed, bullets and tears. This is by and away one of Gubler’s strongest performances and it is always incredible to see the range that McCord possesses. This isn’t to say that the supporting cast isn’t equally incredible. One of the real treasures of the film is Alisha Boe as Violet. There is an instant charm and likability to her and as her backstory unravels, your heart breaks for her. She is a real standout and if this performance is any indication, she’ll be wooing audiences for a long time.
The film also features the incredible Sheila Vand as the unhinged Monica, a performance that is just as unsettling as her turn in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, but for very different reasons. And let’s not forget the seriously under appreciated Sam Eidson who has been a welcome sight in any film since his wonderful performance in Zero Charisma. His Kill character Dwayne is brutal and chilling and any lesser filmmaker would have overused his presence but Haaga has a lite touch, resulting in some of the most memorable screen time.
The only moments where the film falters are due to obvious budget constraints. A first act car chase could have used a little more get up and go and some of the digital blood effects fall flat but it doesn’t stop the movie from being a hell of a ride from start to finish. Haaga’s second outing with Snowfort Pictures (who are responsible for some of the finest independent films of the past few years) is a massive achievement of scope and genre. It is absolutely one of the finest films I’ve seen this year and is an important hallmark for a director who proves with this sophomore outing that genre film isn’t dead and that there are some wild, bloody things left to say.