(The Dirty Ones world premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and is now online for one week only—through Tuesday, 12/22/09—at Wieden+Kennedy Entertainment. Watch it now!)
It seems like a criticism to say you wish a movie hadn’t ended when it did, for that’s how I felt after my first viewing of Brent Stewart’s The Dirty Ones. Stewart creates such a spellbinding tone with this tale of two Mennonite sisters who are making their first foray into the outside world that when the closing cards appeared after just over ten minutes, I felt a minor tug of disappointment. But I mean this as a compliment! Too many filmmakers—short or feature—take thrice as long to say what one carefully placed shot, or one effective line of dialogue, could. Stewart grasps this concept. His restraint and skill as a director is on full display in The Dirty Ones.
Dressed in their wholesome, old-world Mennonite garb, Kitty (Rachel Korine) and Teeny (Raven Dunn) have left home in order to transport their dead grandmother to her final resting place. When we join them, their old pick-up truck has broken down in the late afternoon, forcing them to abandon their grandmother in the flatbed and seek shelter for the night. As they wander through the truly alien landscape of a Southern city as it transitions from evening to night, they are met with much ominousness: imposing buildings with incredibly bright lights; a Chinese food restaurant with a prison-like fish tank; non-Mennonite figures that add menace to the darkness. Nothing climactic happens while we’re with these girls, but Stewart isn’t interested in that type of overt drama; he’s more concerned with atmosphere. Using Roger Pistole’s naturalistic cinematography and an ethereal musical backdrop by Grouper, Stewart makes us see and feel the world through his subject’s wide, innocent eyes.
Many short films are derailed by less-than-sturdy acting, but The Dirty Ones soars due to the startlingly authentic performance of Rachel Korine. Not only does she look younger than she is and can therefore play a convincing teenager, her delivery removes any doubt from a viewer’s mind that they’re watching an actress “play Mennonite.” Korine proves here that her husband Harmony didn’t just cast her in Mister Lonely as Little Red Riding Hood because she was his wife. He cast her because she has an incredibly convincing presence.
While Korine elevates The Dirty Ones to another level, it’s Stewart’s commitment to every little detail that keeps it from losing its balance. Kitty and Teeny’s encounter with a sinister cowboy just outside their hotel room is as creepy as the Big Tuna sequences in Wild at Heart. Which is what caught me so off-guard when the film ended just moments later. In hindsight, and after having watched it several more times in order to further absorb and appreciate its angelic, eerie atmosphere, I know full well that Stewart made the right choice. As a short film, The Dirty Ones is exactly the length that it should be. Though, having said that, I also feel strongly that there’s a feature in here, and I would love to see what happens to Kitty and Teeny as they wake up the next morning and continue to make their way through the threatening outside world.
— Michael Tully