Black Swell

By Jake Honig and David Rysdahl | Drama
A man tries to kill himself in a motel room.

A man confined himself to a motel room out in Long Island on a desolate night full of tumultuous wind. Distraught and depressed, he settles into the room and takes out a gun, clearly intending to use it against himself.

But before he can do anything, loud heavy metal music plays in the neighboring room. Distracted and annoyed, he leaves his room to go next door and ask his neighbor to turn down the music, only to be recognized by the neighbor as Mr. Fennimore, his former teacher. The student, named Jordan, attempts to engage his erstwhile teacher in conversation, but is a reminder of the past enough to distract Mr. Fennimore from his grim purpose?

Director Jake Honig and writer David Rhysdahl have crafted a small, compact drama that tackles the difficult, weighty topic of suicide with a remarkable sense of economy. Narrowing its scope to one location, two people and essentially one conversation, it keeps background information and explanations to a minimum.

But within its confines, the storytelling goes deep, starting with the exceptional central performance by veteran character actor Richard Kind, who brings rich specificity and a somber sense of desolation to a desperately unhappy character. Though we don’t know much about Mr. Fennimore — what drove him to the point, for example — Kind’s performance still elicits great compassion from the audience, bringing to life a spare, intelligent script, with its nuanced dialogue and subtle yet precise emotional beats.

Though most of the film takes place in the hotel room, the camerawork nevertheless carves out a dynamic visual approach, emphasizing both Mr. Fennimore’s isolation as well as the eerie, forlorn atmosphere of the cheap motel room. The evocative, beautifully molded sound design emphasizes the waves of the nearby ocean, the metallic clanks of the gun being loaded, the disturbance of the neighbor’s music — all sounds of this strange, cloistered world that evoke the feeling of it all caving in on Mr. Fennimore.

His former student — who is played by writer Rysdahl — offers an interruption to Mr. Fennimore’s plan for the night, and is clearly wants to connect. Yet the emotional distance between them isn’t easily traversed, no matter how hard Jordan tries to draw his former teacher out. It eventually leads to a devastating, unsettling conclusion — one whose impact isn’t easily forgotten, lingering well past the film’s end.

The subject of suicide can easily topple a short film, trying to cram in detail, background and information in an attempt to “make sense” of an almost unthinkable situation. What works so well in “Black Swell” is how it strips down the crisis to its essentials, emphasizing how unmoored and disconnected the sufferer is from anything, how hard it is to reach out and feel seen and heard — and how crucial it is to listen when it’s needed most.

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