Todd Verow is a virtual one-man gay film industry. He started making films in the mid-90s and has become increasingly prolific since, with the likes of Vacationland, Between Something & Nothing and last year’s Bad Boy Street. His last few films have been narratively and tonally more ambitious than the ones that came before and that continues with Tumbledown, which is based on Verow’s own experiences (and also stars him in the role of Jay).
The film centres on three characters – Rick, Mike and Jay. Rick meets Mike and they hit it off, particularly as he can supply Mike with pills behind the back of Rick’s older boyfriend, Jay. The trio head off for a weekend at a summer house, but afterwards Mike seems to fall off the face of the Earth. A while later Jay invites Mike out to the house again. Soon after arriving, Mike slumps to the floor unconscious and wakes up the next morning in Jay’s bed.
A few weeks afterwards Mike receives a camera. On it is a video of Jay having sex with Mike while he’s lifeless, seemingly drugged, on the floor at the summer house.
Those are the basic events, but the film shows them from all three of the character’s perspectives, one after another, telling us what they said happened. It’s an interesting and potentially contentious way to deal with a topic as sensitive as date rape, allowing all those involved to have their say. In many films that use this narrative technique, the events remain exactly the same with the difference coming from how each character views it, but here it’s what each of them says happened, so certain things change with each retelling, leaving the audience to piece together what they think is the full truth.
In some ways it works well, exploring each character’s stated actions and the repercussions of what occurred. There are also aspects that some will like but others will hate, such as that because this ‘based on a true story’ film is about what each person said happened, there’s no objective truth or ‘ahh’ moment where suddenly everything becomes clear. Many will like the murkiness and how different people can paint different events so that objective truth becomes impossible to ascertain. Others, who prefer a simple narrative, will find it frustrating. (It should be noted though that none of the perspectives try to say what happens to Rick is okay, even if Jay attempts to justify it in his own head).
However, like several of Verow’s other film, it feels like a really good idea that doesn’t work as well as it might have. From the script to the visual style, there’s a sense that it’s nearly there but not quite fulfilling its promise. Some of this is down to the extremely low budget, so that certain scenes have a slightly unfinished quality. Luckily though this is easy to overlook.
More problematic is the screenplay. To really make such a potentially fascinating but controversial idea really hit hard, the script needed to be pin-sharp. Unfortunately it’s a little loose at many of the moments where it needed to be really tight, and leaves things open at moments when more insight would have helped. For example, while it shows us the story from different perspectives, it often feels like it’s merely retelling the surface of what these people said happened, rather than getting under the skin of it. Even this could have worked, perhaps by more fully handling each character’s possible actions and motivations (irrespective of what they say they were), but it needed to be more fully fleshed out to truly be successful.
It’s one of those films that is worth watching as it constantly suggests something really interesting, but much of that relies on the audience looking beyond the movie itself to what it could have been and the things the themes promise rather than what they actually fulfil.
Overall Verdict: Todd Verow is a filmmaker who really needs to be applauded for his ambition, particularly as he works on such limited budgets, but such ambition does tend to have a bit of an all or nothing quality – it’s either amazing or feels like it’s falling short. Sadly while Tumbledown nearly makes it, it’s not quite sharp enough to be a complete success.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac