July 8, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Eve Symington
Some language in Spanish with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the fictional city of Santa Lucia, California, the dramatic film “Brut Force” features a cast of white and Latino characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A hot-tempered journalist, who has been recently fired from her job, goes back to her hometown of Santa Lucia, where she investigates the mysterious disappearance of an employee who works for her stepfather’s vineyard.
Culture Audience: “Brut Force” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching an entertaining, low-budget film about a crime-solving mystery.
The mystery thriller “Brut Force” overcomes some of its flaws (acting and dialogue that are occasionally cringeworthy) with effective suspense and memorable characters in this movie about a journalist investigating a woman’s disappearance. Written and directed by Eve Symington, “Brut Force” is a solid feature-film directorial debut from Symington, who shows potential for creative growth as a filmmaker. The movie is somewhat of a family project, because Lelia Symington (Eve’s sister) and Sidney Symington (Eve and Lelia’s father) are among the co-stars in the movie.
In “Brut Force” (which takes place in the fictional small city of Santa Lucia, California), journalist Sloane Sawyer (played by Lelia Symington), who’s in her late 20s, arrives in her hometown of Santa Lucia after she has recently been fired from her job. The movie doesn’t go into details over why she was fired. But viewers soon see that Sloane’s violent temper probably didn’t help. She’s quick to rough up, push, and punch other people when she gets into an argument or when she wants to intimidate someone.
Sloane’s mother is deceased, and her closest living relative is her stepfather Arthur Stendhal (played by Sidney Symington), who owns and operates a vineyard. Sloane has arrived back in Santa Lucia because a vineyard employee named Marcos De Los Santos (played by Julian Silva) called her and asked her to investigate a problem that the vineyard has been having. The vineyard has several employees who live on the property, but many of them have been quitting because they are being harassed by unknown people.
The harassment includes vandalism and thefts at night or when the employees are out working in the vineyard. There’s a context of anti-immigrant bigotry and racism in these crimes because the employees that are being harassed are Latin immigrants from countries where Spanish is the native language. Some of the white people in Santa Lucia have been openly hostile to these immigrants, but are any of these white locals committing the harassment crimes?
Marcos, who is in his 20s, tells Sloane: “Someone is messing with us. People are leaving left and right.” Marcos says Sloane’s journalistic skills are needed to investigate who’s responsible for this illegal harassment. He also mentions that Arthur “won’t fight back, and the cops won’t come downtown for us.”
It’s not mentioned right away, but it’s eventually revealed that Sloane was reluctant to come back to Santa Lucia because of bad memories. Her mother Nora was a drug addict, but was clean and sober for years until Nora suddenly and unexpectedly died from a drug overdose in the past spring. Sloane finds it difficult to talk about her mother to anyone. Arthur doesn’t really want to talk about Nora either.
Not long after Sloane arrives in Santa Lucia, she has a somewhat awkward reunion with Arthur. He introduces Sloane to Dulce Lopez Castillo (played by Vico Escorcia), a woman in her 20s whom Arthur describes as his most-trusted worker whom he relies on the most. Sloane tells Arthur that she doesn’t plan to stay for long in Santa Lucia and is only in town because she was asked to investigate the harassment of the vineyard employees.
Sloane soon has a strange encounter with a guy named Alan Black, who acts like he’s lurking suspiciously near the vineyard. Sloane chases after Alan, but he’s able to get away. Sloane asks a cop named Gerry McDonnell (played by Chase Mullins) if he’s seen Alan, but Gerry says no. Sloane and Gerry knew each other when they were childhood schoolmates. Until Sloane came back for this visit, she and Gerry hadn’t seen each other in years.
Sloane attends a town hall meeting and sees firsthand how deep the racial tensions are in Santa Lucia. The meeting is mostly about the immigrants who work for the vineyard and the fact that Arthur lets most of these employees live on the vineyard property. Some of the locals have a problem with a commercial property being used to house employees, but anyone can see that their real problem is that the people who live on this property are non-white immigrants who don’t have English as their first language.
These vineyard employees are law-abiding residents of Santa Lucia and are contributing to the business economy of the city. However, that doesn’t stop some of the racists in town from trying to make it look like these immigrants will cause trouble. An overly perky attendee named Patty Ernst (played by Tate Hanyok), a political candidate seeking re-election as county supervisor, talks about “neighborhood safety,” which are usually code words that racist white people use when they don’t want non-white people living in their neighborhood.
Two things happen that deepen the mystery of what’s going on in Santa Lucia. First, the vineyard’s employee housing building burns down. Luckily, people managed to escape, and no one was killed or injured in this arson. The police have no suspects or persons of interest for this crime.
Arthur says of the cops who are investigating: “I think they’re probably relieved that it burned down.” Sloane also meets a neighbor named Timothy Fitnall (played by Erik Odom), who has the same attitude. Timothy says of the burned-down building: “Good riddance. This is a residential neighborhood.” Timothy is aware that college-educated journalist Sloane is investigating, and he tells her: “Be gone, college girl.”
The second thing that happens that makes the mystery more complicated is that Dulce disappears. Arthur tells Sloane that the last time he heard from Dulce, she called in sick and said that she has pneumonia. However, several days have passed, and Dulce has not made contact with Arthur again, and she’s not returning any messages. Arthur starts to think that something terrible might have happened to Dulce, because it’s out of her character to be uncommunicative and unreliable.
Around the time that Dulce has gone missing, Sloane meets someone who immediately catches her interest. His name is Alejandro “Tico” Reyes Acuña (played by Tyler Posey), who says that he’s looking for Dulce. Tico says that he hasn’t seen Dulce for weeks. Tico describes Dulce as being a “sweet kid” but “a magnet for trouble.” It somewhat contradicts Arthur’s description of Dulce being reliable and trustworthy.
What’s the truth? And why is Tico trying to find Dulce? Sloane is determined to find out. Tico has been staying at the Bettie B.’s Motel, where Dulce was last seen in public. Dulce was also living at the motel. These clues might make Tico look suspicious, but (cliché alert) Tico and Sloane have a flirtatious attraction to each other, so this attraction could cloud her judgment.
During her investigation, Sloane meets two other people who could hold the answers to this mystery: Tico’s wealthy and domineering mother Mariela Vicuña (played by Patricia Velasquez) and a librarian named Lettie Newsome (played by Janice Peters), who gives Sloane some background on the history of Santa Lucia and the surrounding area. Some of the mystery unfolds in ways that are more predictable than others.
What will keep viewers interested in “Brut Force” is that the characters aren’t always that simple to figure out because they have their own personal agendas. Sloane’s bad temper doesn’t make her a stereotypical plucky heroine who’s the usual type of protagonist female investigator in mystery thrillers. Lelia Symington is in almost every scene in “Brut Force,” and she makes the most of every scene she’s in without doing a lot of over-acting.
Sloane has simmering rage that’s just below the surface. This rage comes out in different ways, but a lot of it seems to be fueled by grief. If you think about the circumstances under which Sloane has come back to her hometown, and add to the fact that she’s dealing with her mother’s sudden tragic death, it’s enough emotional baggage to make anyone feel on the edge of emotionally exploding. In that respect, Lelia Symington’s performance (which is by no means perfect) makes a difference in bringing a lot of emotional authenticity to the movie.
Posey and the other cast members are adequate in their roles, but viewers never really get a sense of these characters’ personal histories as much as Sloane’s personal history is depicted in Lelia Symington’s performance. “Brut Force” starts off a little slow but the movie gets better as it goes along, when Sloane unravels more of the mystery. Toward the end of the movie, it becomes obvious that this mystery isn’t the only problem that Sloane has to confront. She also has to decide what type of person she want to be and what she wants to do with her life.
XYZ Films released “Brut Force” on digital and VOD on April 21, 2022.