A single dollar bill is the real star of this Louisiana-set drama about corruption, temptation and redemption.
If money could speak, what would it tell us about its journeys? That’s the conceit (some would say gimmick) at the heart of ad director Fabien Dufils' debut feature, One Buck. Taking a page from Luc Besson’s recipe book focused on low-budget thrillers, One Buck is the kind of unpleasant (mostly) cop drama that is EuropaCorp’s stock in trade — and that Cinemax would put in its lineup if it hadn’t found respectability with Banshee and The Knick. Also taking cues from Lethal Weapon (a wounded cop mourning the death of his wife in all the wrong ways), Triple 9 (whose investigators deserved investigating) and Twenty Bucks (which also followed one treasury note around town), One Buck sets out to examine the impact money has on individual lives, for better and for worse, but mostly for worse.
Allegedly based on the true stories writer-director Dufils unearthed during early research — as well as the reemergence of a dollar in his own home — One Buck connects a series of loosely related characters as they intersect each time the central greenback changes hands. The bill in question becomes the physical manifestation of the various societal ills facing us today, as the events that surround it demonstrate in such garish detail: police brutality, drug addiction, violence against women. One Buck isn’t likely to set box offices on fire, but it could find an audience on cable and streaming and possibly in urban markets as counter-programming, particularly in the U.S.
Unfolding in what should be a languid bayou setting, the Louisiana of Dufils’ film is far removed from the gaiety of Bourbon Street and the oversexed supernatural soap opera of Bon Temps. The dollar travels around a depressed backwater, where all the women are prostitutes or junkies and the men are trucker hat-wearing pigs who get literal with their guns as phallic symbols. We start with a dead woman (naturally) in a swamp, whose murder appears to be one in a string being investigated by heavy-drinking cokehead cop Harry Maggio (John Freeman), the central character, if the film has one. Harry is still reeling from the brutal death of his wife, drowning his sorrows in cheap sex and cheaper booze and letting his professional duties suffer.
Harry has a sister, Amara (Katie Ryan), who worries about him, and a nephew he gives a dollar to, for ice cream, setting the story in motion. The note weaves Jordan (Will Green), a black man who naturally becomes the prime suspect in the murders; his racist boss (Peter Tahoe, sort of a Matthew McConaughey lite); Sam (Melissa Schumacher), a family friend with a dead-beat ex-husband who won’t cough up his child support; and Harry’s partner Jay (Darren Kendrick), who is carrying on with Amara while trying to shield Harry from a federal corruption investigation, among others, together in a larger tapestry about desperate people in dead-end lives, all with serious money issues dictating their overwhelmingly miserable fates.
Even with its expositional script, zingers like, “You don’t look like a cop. You look like trouble,” and that most classic moment where a character puts on their headphones so can’t hear a brutal murder next door, One Buck is almost compulsively watchable. It’s not quite as clever as it thinks it is, or as original, but it does manage a strong sense of morbid curiosity as to how events will shake out. Dufils doesn’t exploit the Louisiana location as much as he could, rendering the anonymous town just that — anonymous. In doing so, the geography becomes moot, and if the point was to create an Anytown USA vibe it worked — perhaps a little too well. There’s nothing to suggest the kind of oppressive poverty, crime or malaise that would give rise to these people’s hopelessness. Still, Green stands out for capturing the simmering rage and apprehension regarding police within the black community that’s made headlines of late, and makes Jordan’s fatal error understandable. Dufils and cinematographer Stephane Vallee keep the visuals grimy, almost documentary-like, but Dufils has yet to hone a singular directorial voice. Technical elements belie a small budget.
Production company: Mad Street Pictures
Cast: John Freeman, Cassi Colvin, Katie Ryan, Darren Kendrick, Will Green, Peter Tahoe, Charlotte Bjornbak, Melissa Schumacher, Tony Sallemi, Kassandra Kanaar, Rachael Lee Magill, Peggy Fields Richardson, Robin Zamora
Director-screenwriter: Fabien Dufils
Producer: Bassam Abdallah, Fabien Dufils
Executive producer: Bassam Abdallah, Fabien Dufils, Ahmad Aballah
Director of photography: Stephane Vallee
Production designer: Roman Mignon
Costume designer: Nnenna Dufils
Editor: Olivier Wicki
Music: David Imbault
Casting: Michael Marks
World sales: All Rights Entertainment