Opening with a brutal underground fight where face meets pavement for the sleazy online audience of Halifights.com, director Michael Melski makes it clear from the get-go that Charlie Zone won’t be your usual friendly neighborhood Canadian movie. He’s made a vicious thriller set on the dirtiest back streets of Halifax that has the subtly and impact of a punch to the gut. It’s certainly a film that’s hard to shake off after you’ve seen it and while Melski’s movie may not be perfect, it is one of the most gripping and powerful movies to come out of the indie Canadian filmmaking scene in quite some time. You probably won’t want to bring your mother along to a screening of this one, but that’s a good thing.
Glen Gould (not that one) stars as Avery, a Native American former boxer who now lives on the change and dirty bills flung at him during his internet-ready streetfights. One day he’s unexpectedly contacted by a wealthy couple who hire him to find their daughter. Obviously he’s a bit suspicious given that he’s not exactly a model citizen for that task, but it’s explained that she’s in a place that will require a little head-stomping so Avery accepts the job. It turns out that the teen girl Jan (Amanda Crew) has fallen into drug addiction hard enough that she not only spends most of her time with dealers and gang members, but owes most of them money. Avery finds her and pulls her out of a heroin den, only to end up pursued by all the unfortunate folk Jan is indebted to. Perhaps inevitably, after all the fights are won it turns out that the poor girl’s home life just might be worse than any trouble she got herself into on the streets.
Writer/director Michael Melski’s previous movie was the far gentler dramedy Growing Op which offers little indication of what to expect from this harsh follow up, but he has dipped his toes in similar waters as a playwright. The filmmaker’s goal with Charlie Zone was to portray the seedy crime ridden back allies of Halifax for the first time and he certainly achieved that. Shot mostly with handheld cameras on location, there’s a gritty immediacy to Melski’ trips to the underworld that will make you feel a little grimy just for watching it. Large sections of the movie have the almost documentary sense of reality that the filmmaker was going for, but ultimately the script takes the movie into a more stylized thriller territory. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and Melski pulls off the transition well. It’s just worth noting that this very much a thriller set in a realistic world and not a painstakingly researched representation of the daily grind on the streets.
While some of the actors around the edges may drop the occasional stilted line delivery, Melski really lucked out with his leading duo. Glen Gould is absolutely remarkable as Avery. He’s able to handle all of the physical scenes with the appropriate level of threat and/or pain, while still coming off like a damaged soul with a soft center when the time comes. The movie quite simply wouldn’t have worked without him and hopefully it will get the actor a little more attention and a few more roles because he deserves it. Amanda Crew steps up gamely into her role as the drug-addled runaway as well. The character is about as far a way as possible from her work in sitcoms and Charlie St. Cloud and yet she nails the inner turmoil and outward addition of her character perfectly. The two performances hold the movie together in the rare moments it threatens to slip into melodrama and credit must be given to Melski for finding the right people and giving them the freedom to make the roles their own in long actor-friendly takes.
For anyone who complains about Canadian filmmaking being soft and boring, Charlie Zone is a shock to the senses. It’s one of the more visceral experiences you can find in a theater right now and even if some might be put off by the relentlessly dark tone and scarring images, the film certainly can never be described as boring. Hopefully enough eyeballs will get on the movie for everyone involved to get another crack at feature filmmaking. The Canadian film industry needs more films and filmmakers like this that take chances without fear of alienating viewers. Melski and company are around now and let’s all hope they’re here to stay.