The cost of fame sits in the living room wondering aloud whether dad will be home for Christmas. Why these two young boys’ voices have been deepened to sound like they’re 40-year-old drunks slurring through a bender is beyond me (an assumption of it being a dream or game is squashed once mom enters without the effect being called out), but their words have meaning. Troyal’s (Mickey Reece channeling Garth Brooks) star has risen to unimaginable heights and he’s embraced it to the point where his “good ol’ boy” demeanor can’t quite hide the growing ego beneath a cowboy hat. While Jamie (Leah N.H. Philpott) tries toeing the line of admiring his accomplishments and being frightened about what they mean for the family, he’s already miles away.
And he’s about to literally be miles away, thanks to a letter from Troyal’s idol George Jones (Ben Hall). Reece (who directs, stars, and co-writes with John Selvidge) puts his character right on the spot as Country Gold starts, supplying him a choice between the music and those who love him. Should he stay and play catch with the boys before another paying gig sends him away? Or should he bask in the newfound notoriety and embrace the perks that come with it like a living legend asking him to hang out in Nashville? The answer is easy, yet most Americans choose the opposite—capitalism conditions us to always put our careers first, learning way too late that we’ll never get that time back.
Is this therefore that lesson? Is seeing what’s become of George, for better or worse, going to provide Troyal a mirror with which to reevaluate his priorities? That’s the idea. It’s even driven home by the revelation that George reached out because he’s about to be cryogenically frozen in the hopes of being resurrected and cured of a heart ailment decades later to deliver a swan song worthy of his legacy—long enough to perhaps amend his mistakes. Not that he’ll be doing any amending today. No, he’s going to enjoy himself this weekend and is under the assumption (from his own experience with fame-fueled youth) that Troyal will be on the same page. Unfortunately for Jones, however, that “good ol’ boy” shtick is legit.
The juxtaposition is intentionally humorous. Both men are egotistical pricks, but on opposite ends of the spectrum. George knows he’s a prick and thus lacks remorse to care what anyone thinks about his impulsive nature to get what he wants. Troyal’s “aw shucks” routine has him believing he’s the good guy despite never doing the “good guy” thing—at least not with authenticity. George uses his charm and name to get people to do his bidding. Troyal uses his to trick himself into thinking everyone wants to please him. They’re two sides of the same coin; their collision has more of a chance to corrupt Troyal than it does redeem George. Add cocaine, prostitutes, and a very attentive fanbase—the temptation might prove too much.
It’s a very satisfactory pairing with a continuous stream of dialogue that speaks on the casualty of fame, wealth, and the value of artistic integrity where both are concerned. There’s also a lot of interesting bits about perception whether George’s assumption that Troyal will be in for a debauched night or Troyal’s refusal to listen to anyone who dares to tear down his hero regardless of their criticisms being well-known facts. When Reece allows his film to put its leads together for a generational clash of jealousy, disappointment, and education, I was enthralled. If this thing has the makings of a real warts-and-all two-hander where the filmmaker can therapeutically exorcize his demons, that all seems to play second fiddle to the desire for distractingly unorthodox, absurdist segues.
Despite the cult independent director’s prolific output, this is my introduction to Mickey Reece. So there’s a good chance that these odd stylistic choices are part of his appeal with fans; any uncertainty about them on my part should be taken with a grain of salt. I’m not even going to say I disliked them. There’s in fact something fun and challenging in this weirdness. My problem arises less through the content than the execution—how matter-of-fact these flourishes prove despite feeling anything but. Between Troyal’s kids’ voice effect and a record-scratching “what is happening” moment with Juno (Joe Cappa) imagining an alternate reality version of himself through cocaine eyes, it’s easy to lose the plot.
Reece seems to be aware of this and does explain some bits. The Juno sequence carries on for a good while, making it seem like there’s been a perception shift before we’re jolted back to reality. Cut to a setting change and Juno is suddenly leading a conversation that’s simultaneously giving context to what just happened and the use of alternate dimensions in Star Trek canon. The point, of course, is that Troyal still has a choice. Even though he went to Nashville and left his family behind, he can still put the brakes on his devolution into what George has become. At some point Juno could have been a good son worrying about his mother rather than a drug-addicted miscreant pulling guns out at tourists in bars.
It’s an abrupt, perhaps half-baked desire to spotlight grander meaning that works in hindsight (and perhaps better in Reece’s genre fare). But I honestly think he makes his case effectively without. His Troyal and Hall’s Jones have a nice handle on their characters and what they mean to the other, literally and figuratively. The tongue-in-cheek humor keeps things fresh and offbeat (R. Dustin Sanchez’s bartender P-Wee is a standout) while letting those more nuanced themes come through en route to Troyal receiving everything he needs to refocus and stop thinking about himself for once. Will he use that lesson to become a better man than George? Maybe. For a while. As a country-singing fetus promises, however, he won’t be the last one in need of such education.
Country Gold had its world premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival.