By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Craig Nigh, Mike Gassaway and Jeannie Carter-Cruz
Written and directed by Ray Spivey and Jeff Kerr
The writer and critic Dorothy Parker once famously wrote that the single greatest favor one could bestow upon a writer was to “shoot them now, while they’re happy.” But after watching WRITER’S BLOCK, the maxim may need a slight update: “…and still in one piece.”
You don’t need to be a scribe yourself to appreciate the plight of novelist Skip Larson (Craig Nigh). Limping into middle age, dragging his personal dreams and professional aspirations behind him like a deflated balloon, he seems to be sardonically preparing himself for calcified anonymity and existential decline. Then a heavy with the evocative name Digger Haskell (Chris Warner) shows up at a sparsely attended book signing, to purchase the entire hitherto orphaned stock and bring Skip to a rendezvous with enigmatic best-selling author Chester Everett McGraw (Mike Gassaway). The failing writer soon finds himself at an isolated desert ranch fairly swimming in taxidermized critters and weaponry, where McGraw puts a tempting deal on the table: Help write a sequel to one of his most famous books, and Skip will have riches and fame beyond his wildest dreams.
It isn’t difficult to divine that this deal isn’t quite what it seems. “Faustian” is, after all, an adjective for a reason. But what Skip faces here quickly escalates beyond the usual compromise and tainted soul into a smorgasbord of mercurial psychological abuse, philosophic perversion, sexual intrigue, “kept man” agonistes, wanton violence and, eventually, cannibalism.
There is a lot working in WRITER’S BLOCK’s favor: The script (by directors Ray Spivey and Jeff Kerr) may build up from an age-old premise, but the angle is unique. Nigh, Gassaway and Warner all bring real charisma, vitality and authenticity to their respective roles. Jeannie Carter-Cruz contributes oodles of heat and menace to the part of Catalina, an employee of the household turned paramour with increasingly questionable loyalties and intentions. Spivey and Kerr prove as adept at building tension and suspense as they are at shocking the viewer when the pot finally boils over.
That said, the clear budgetary restraints put a drag on the filmmakers’ ambitions, and inhibit the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief. Some of the fight sequences, for example, feel hastily blocked out and shot with punches and kicks looking less like devastating blows than bonus-features rehearsal footage. If I were inclined to be cheeky about it, I might say there’s a real “first draft” vibe to some of this. But I’m not inclined to be cheeky, really, because watching Nigh face off with Warner and Gassaway while Carter-Cruz kindles the sinister smolder is good old-fashioned warts-and-all ultra-indie-cinema fun. Though hardly perfect, WRITER’S BLOCK will likely pique your interest in what Kerr, Spivey and this talented cast have planned for their next chapter.