Culture Representation: Taking place in New Mexico, the horror film “The Price We Pay” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one Latina and one Asian person) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.
Culture Clash: Three criminals kidnap a woman during an armed robbery of a pawn shop, and the four of them end up at a remote farm inhabited by a family of serial killers.
Culture Audience: “The Price We Pay” will appeal primarily to people who like mindless slasher films with no originality.
“The Price We Pay” is yet another tedious and moronic slasher flick that’s a very bad imitation of 1974’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” If you’re going to copy a horror classic, at least make it compelling. “The Price We Pay” fails miserably on every level.
Directed by Ryûhei Kitamura and written by Christopher Jolley, “The Price We Pay” has so many unimaginative clichés and badly staged action sequences, the cast members could have been replaced by robots, and it still would’ve looked like the same awful mess. Actually, robots would probably have done a better job than most of the human actors who give soulless and stiff performances in “The Price We Pay.” Everything becomes so predictable and repetitive, it drains the movie of any suspense that it might have intended.
“The Price We Pay” takes place in an unnamed city in New Mexico. (The movie was actually filmed in Las Cruces, New Mexico.) The opening scene shows a sex worker in her 20s named Carly (played by Sabina Mach) being thrown out of a truck by a recent customer named John (played by Jesse Kinser), who leaves her stranded at a remote gas station before he drives away. Carly goes inside a stall of the gas station’s restroom, where viewers see that she has stolen John’s wallet.
Suddenly, a man wearing heavy work boots walks up to the stall and creepily stands in front of the closed stall door where Carly is, but he says nothing. A terrified Carly can only see this man’s feet, and she doesn’t want to open the door. As a distraction, she slides the wallet underneath the stall and across the floor, thinking that this weird stranger will take the wallet and leave. The man eventually walks away.
And it’s at this point you know that just because he walked away doesn’t mean he left. Carly hesitantly opens the stall door. And the next thing she knows, she is wounded by a dart and then dragged outside. Viewers can easily guess what happens to Carly.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, a woman in her 20s named Grace (played by Gigi Zumbado) is in the back room of a pawn shop, where she is negotiating a debt that she owes to the pawn shop’s sleazy-looking owner/manager Mr. Fuller (played by Heath Hensley), because she’s four weeks overdue on an unspecified payment. Grace offers to sell more items at the pawn shop to cover part of the debt. Their negotiations are interrupted when Grace and Mr. Fuller notice on the security cameras that there’s an armed robbery in progress in the front part of the pawn shop.
Mr. Fuller takes a gun and goes to the front to defend his shop. He is shot dead, but not before shooting one of the robbers in the robber’s right leg. A pawn shop worker (played by Nick Check) is part of the shootout, but he is easily outnumbered by the three robbers, so he is shot to death too. Grace hides in the back room, where she tries to find a way to escape.
The ringleader of this criminal trio is named Cody (played by Stephen Dorff), who sees Grace in the back room and captures her. Cody and his two cronies—Alex (played by Emile Hirsch) and Alex’s younger brother Shane (played by Tanner Zagarino)—then kidnap Grace and force her to let them take her car in their getaway. Shane is the robber with the injured leg. Even though it’s later revealed that Alex hired Cody (a former military guy) for this robbery, Cody is the one who acts like he’s in charge the entire time.
These dimwitted criminals are in a panic and don’t have a plan. They don’t want to go a hospital, because Shane’s gunshot wound will be reported to the police. As so, the thieves and Grace drive around aimlessly in a backwoods area until the car runs out of gas and then malfunctions and is unable to operate. It’s late at night, and there’s no chance that any mechanic shops in the area will be open.
They walk around until they find what they think might be a safe place to hide out: an isolated farm. Someone is at the farm when they arrive: a harmless-looking teenager named Danny (played by Tyler Sanders), who says he lives there with his grandfather, who is not home a the moment, but the grandfather will be home soon. Cody has noticed that there’s an empty barn on the property. Before approaching Danny to ask to temporarily stay in the barn, Cody tells Grace to go along with whatever Cody does.
Cody and Grace pretend that they are married and are looking for a place to stay for a few hours because their car unexpectedly broke down. Cody turns on the charm, begs Danny to let them stay in the barn, and promises that they will be gone in the morning. Danny reluctantly agrees. What Cody doesn’t tell Danny is that they have a guy with them with a bullet wound.
Because the trailer for “The Price We Pay” already reveals that this farm is inhabited by a family of serial killers who capture and torture these four visitors, it should come as no surprise when it happens. Danny’s grandfather, whose only name in the movie is The Doctor (played by Vernon Wells), acts like a surgeon from hell. And he likes to use a dart to incapacitate his victims before killing them.
There’s another member of the family who’s also a murderous accomplice: The Doctor’s daughter Jodi (played by Erika Ervin), a towering and mute slaughterer, who has disheveled hair and wears a tattered mask. The Jodi character is basically a ripoff of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” villain Leatherface, but not nearly as terrifying.
Dorff is the only member of the cast who looks like he’s making some effort to have a personality for his character. Very little is revealed about any of the hollow characters in this movie. Any few personal details about the characters that are revealed have no real bearing on the overall story. The killers’ motives are murky at best. “The Price We Pay” is not only the movie’s title but it can also describe the unfortunate experience of anyone who wastes time watching this repulsive dreck.
Lionsgate released “The Price We Pay” on digital and VOD on January 10, 2023, and in select U.S. cinemas on January 13, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles on May 30 and May 31, 2020, the dramatic film “Traveling Light” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: Various strangers, who end up crossing paths each other in some way or another, have different ways of coping with quarantine lockdowns and other restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Culture Audience: “Traveling Light” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Danny Huston, Stephen Dorff and Tony Todd and any rambling and aimless movies that are a complete waste of time.
One of the many unfortunate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the entertainment industry is that it’s spawned a lot of awful movies with a COVID-19 theme. “Traveling Light” is one of these cinematic abominations. It’s utterly incoherent and pointless.
How bad is “Traveling Light”? When I saw the movie in a New York City movie theater, at a screening attended by members of the ticket-buying public, there were only three people in the room, including myself. By the end of the movie, the other two people—who clearly disliked the movie and couldn’t take watching it anymore—had walked out in disgust. One person left about halfway through the film, while the other person had enough of “Traveling Light’s” nonsense about three-quarters of the way through the movie.
Because I planned to review the film, I stayed until the bitter end. “Traveling Light” (written and directed by Bernard Rose) is so sloppily made, the end credits are very incomplete. The only end credits that showed up on screen were quick listings of the music composers and songwriters whose work could be heard in “Traveling Light.” There are student films and amateur YouTube videos that are more professionally made than “Traveling Light.”
“Traveling Light” writer/director Rose is best known for directing and co-writing the 1992 horror film “Candyman,” which spawned several inferior sequels and a 2021 reboot/sequel. “Candyman” and Rose’s 1994 drama “Immortal Beloved” (starring Gary Oldman) are probably Rose’s best-received movies by critics. All of Rose’s other movies have been considered middling or forgettable flops with critics and general audiences.
Rose’s connection to the original “Candyman” movie explains why original “Candyman” star Tony Todd is in “Traveling Light” in a completely underdeveloped and embarrassing role. Rose apparently also used his past working relationship with longtime British actor Danny Huston (who usually plays American characters in American-made movies) to lure Huston into the junkpile trap of making “Traveling Light.” Rose and Huston previously worked together on the the 2012 comedy/drama “2 Jacks” and a substandard 2015 remake of the horror classic “Frankenstein.”
“Traveling Light” takes place in Los Angeles during a 24-hour period from May 30 to May 31, 2020, during the pre-vaccine quarantined lockdown days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The movie is somewhat trying to be an experimental, avant-garde 2020 version of the 2005 Oscar-winning drama “Crash,” a movie showing various Los Angeles residents who are seemingly strangers to each other, but it’s eventually revealed how they cross paths and affect each other lives.
If “Crash” had any influence on “Traveling Light,” it’s not worth bragging about, since “Crash” is considered one of the worst Best Picture winners of all time at the Academy Awards. And “Traveling Light” is far from award-worthy. “Traveling Light” is such an obscure bomb, it’s not even notable enough to get on the radar of the Razzie Awards.
In “Traveling Light,” the movie goes back and forth between showing various neurotic characters who are mostly middle-aged. Harry (played by Huston) is a famous spiritual guru who has a cult-like following. He has gatherings in the homes of affluent people, under the guise that these gatherings are spiritual enlightenment seminars/retreats. “Traveling Light” shows one of these gatherings, which is really just a party where people take all sorts of drugs with Harry. Being a celebrity guru has taken an emotional toll on Harry’s marriage to his long-suffering wife Blue (Rosie Fellner), who is living in Harry’s shadow.
Todd (played by Stephen Dorff) is a semi-famous actor who is one of Harry’s devoted followers. Todd feels so restless and bored in his marriage to his loyal and responsible wife Mary (played by Olivia d’Abo), it’s not unusual for Todd to disappear for several days, so that he can avoid having to interact with Mary. After Todd does a virtual group meditation session with Harry, a star-struck Todd comments to Mary about Harry’s supposed genius skills: “I don’t think I can meditate that fast. He’s channeling something.”
Caddy (played by “Candyman” star Todd) is a brooding bachelor loner who has come out of retirement (his previous job is never mentioned) during the pandemic to become a rideshare driver because he doesn’t want to be cooped up in his house during a quarantine. Caddy is adamant that he and other people around him need to wear face masks during this pandemic. He is superstitious about getting infected with COVID-19, so he carries a bag of juju and a crucifix with him as good luck charms. Caddy is also dealing with the emotional pain of looking for his missing adult son Cecil, who is homeless and has mental health issues.
Arthur (played by Matthew Jacobs) is a British oddball with a fixation on trying to monitor people who are not wearing a mask and/or not social distancing. In one aggravatingly stupid sequence in the movie, Arthur uses his phone to video record a homeless couple named Anne (played by Jen Kuhn) and Blaster (played by Jeff Hilliard) because Anne and Blaster are not wearing masks and not social distancing while out on a public street. Anne and Blaster get annoyed when they see Arthur video recording them and tell him to stop. He refuses.
Arthur’s video recording is creepy but not illegal, as long as he doesn’t use the footage for any commercial purposes that would require signed release forms. For example, people on a public street can be recorded without their permission for security surveillance, for private (non-commercial use), or for news-gathering purposes. The problem is that Arthur refuses to tell Anne and Blaster where he’s going to put the video footage that he took of this homeless couple.
It leads to a confrontation where Anne and Blaster chase after Arthur on the street. They corner Arthur and get into a physical altercation with him, until Arthur agrees to delete the video footage. This sequence is neither amusing nor interesting. And it just makes Arthur look weird and petty, because homeless people have a lot bigger problems to worry about than a stranger trying to shame them for not social distancing on a street during this pandemic.
Arthur is acquainted with another eccentric who also has a very meddling and preachy attitude about whether or not people are wearing face masks in public. This busybody is named Gretchen (played by Vanessa Yuille), who has gone as far as making hand-held signs with slogans lecturing people to wear face masks. “Traveling Light” has some contrived and awkward-looking scenes where Arthur and Gretchen communicate by phone or meet each other in person to come up with schemes to catch people aren’t wearing face masks.
As far as Gretchen and Arthur are concerned, people who aren’t wearing face masks during the pandemic are health terrorists who are putting other people’s lives in danger. Gretchen proudly shows Arthur one of her hand-held signs, which says: “Don’t be a [dick], wear a mask!” Instead of the word “dick,” she put an illustration of a penis on the sign. Gretchen thinks the penis illustration is appropriate, while Arthur does not, and they debate about it. This is what’s supposed to pass as comedy in “Traveling Light.”
“Traveling Light” makes a very superficial attempt at having a social conscience, when the movie shows in its opening scene that Caddy (who is African American) is watching with despair some TV news about the civil rights protests following the death of George Floyd by police brutality. As most people know by now, Floyd was an unarmed, 46-year-old African American man who was murdered on a Minneapolis street by a white police officer who put his full body weight on Floyd’s neck, while three of the cop’s colleagues stood by and prevented bystanders from helping Floyd, who was begging for help. Floyd’s murder (which happened on May 25, 2020) was documented on video and led to worldwide protests over racist police brutality.
Unfortunately, “Traveling Light” does nothing substantial with the movie being set during the history-making anti-police-brutality protests in the days and weeks after Floyd’s murder. The movie could have explored the added anxiety that Caddy must have felt in knowing that his homeless son Cecil, a mentally ill African American man, is especially vulnerable to police brutality or unlawful arrests/detainments. Instead, these issues are tossed aside in “Traveling Light” like a discarded pandemic mask.
“Traveling Light” has tedious scenes showing the drug-induced ramblings of attendees at one of Harry’s retreats at a hillside mansion, where Harry hands out an unidentified liquid psychedelic drug that he calls an “elixir.” Harry repeats, “I ask for forgiveness, and I give forgiveness.” Todd is at one of these “retreats,” where various other drugs are consumed, including marijuana, cocaine, pills and alcohol. Expect to see some predictable druggie scenes that go nowhere and mean nothing.
Two people in their 20s named Clara (played by Lena Gora) and Sydney (played by Duke Nicholson) meet at this party and seem to have an attraction to each other. Too bad their drugged-out conversations are just the verbal equivalent of diarrhea. Sydney is so stoned, he can barely stand, let along comprehend what’s going on around him.
Clara then flirts with Todd when they end up alone together in a walk-in closet. Todd’s worried wife Mary suddenly shows up at the party and angrily demands to know what Clara is doing with recovering drug addict Todd, who is supposed to be clean and sober. Todd and Clara deny that anything sexual is going on between them. And then, Clara pretends that Sydney is her boyfriend. This part of the movie is like watching someone’s drugged-addled idea of a soap opera.
It should come as no surprise that some of these characters end up as passengers in Caddy’s car, as if he’s the only rideshare driver in Los Angeles. Caddy says at one point in the movie that he’s only been a rideshare driver for one day. The way that he berates some of his customers for not wearing masks, you get the feeling that he won’t last much longer as a rideshare driver because of all the bad reviews he’s going to get from customers. All of the cast members’ performances in “Traveling Light” range from lackluster to excruciatingly horrible.
At one point in this dreadful movie, Harry leads a group chant where he roars like an animal, because he’s so whacked out on drugs. His followers love it, because they think whatever comes out of Harry’s mouth is supposed to have some deeper meaning. “Traveling Light” is one of those pretentiously bad films that tries to make people think it has deeper meaning too, but it’s all just a sham that’s nothing but a load of rubbish and hot air.
Xenon Pictures released “Traveling Light” in select U.S. cinemas, beginning in Los Angeles on June 10, 2022, and in New York City and Seattle on August 19, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place in 1906 in the Oklahoma territory of the United States, the Western drama film “Old Henry” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A widower farmer and his teenage son find themselves in a violent standoff in their home, after they take in a mysterious, wounded stranger, who is accused of being a bank robber on the run.
Culture Audience: “Old Henry” will appeal primarily to fans of Westerns that have good acting and suspenseful twists to the story.
At first glance, “Old Henry” seems to be another Western about a bank robbers and gun shootouts. However, the movie has different layers and a few twists that are eventually revealed in this suspenseful and intriguing story. Led by a memorable performance by Tim Blake Nelson, “Old Henry” is also a family drama that tackles issues of father-son relationships and how a family can shape someone’s identity.
“Old Henry” (written and directed by Potsy Ponciroli) takes place over a few days in 1906, in the territory of Oklahoma. (The movie was actually filmed in Waterton, Tennessee.) Henry McCarty (played by Nelson) is a widower who lives on a farm with his son Wyatt McCarty (played by Gavin Lewis), who is about 16 or 17 and is reluctant to follow in his father’s footsteps of being a farmer. Henry’s wife/Wyatt’s mother, Marie Hobbs McCarty, died of tuberculosis in 1896, at the age of 35. Marie’s brother Al Hobbs (played by Trace Adkins) regularly visits the farm to help out when he’s needed.
Henry is a stern and strict taskmaster who’s not very talkative, and he doesn’t express deep emotions very easily. However, there are things in his past that haunt him. These memories are shown in flashback scenes that are like pieces in a puzzle that eventually reveal the answer to a mystery. Henry and Wyatt are also grieving over the death of Marie, but they have the type of household where these feelings are not openly discussed.
What Henry does talk about to Wyatt is how he made something of himself after a life of hard knocks. Henry tells his son that he was born in New York. By the time he was 3 years old, Henry and his family had moved to Kansas, then Arizona, and then New Mexico.
“Finally,” Henry says, “I settled on the life of a farmer, which is what I am.” Wyatt says skeptically, “I still can’t believe that’s what you wanted.” Henry replies, “There are worse arrangements.” If Henry wanted to do something else with his life besides being a farmer, he’s not about to tell Wyatt in this conversation.
One day, a mare wanders onto an open field on Henry’s farm. The mare has a bloody saddle and no rider. Henry goes to investigate and finds an armed man nearby with a bullet hole in his chest and a knapsack full of cash. The man is barely alive. Henry doesn’t seem to want to take the cash at first, but he soon changes his mind and takes the knapsack and the man’s gun.
Meanwhile, Henry brings the mystery man back to Henry’s house to give him medical attention. Because Henry doesn’t know anything about this stranger, as a safety precaution, Henry ties the man’s hands and feet to a bed while Henry and Wyatt look after him. Eventually, the man regains consciousness and tells Henry that his name is Curry (played by Scott Haze), and that he’s a lawman who was shot by bank robbers.
Henry is immediately skeptical of the story, but he has no proof that Curry is lying or telling the truth. Not long after Curry is found, three men on horseback arrive at the farm. Their leader introduces himself as a sheriff named Sam Ketchum (played by Stephen Dorff), and the two men with him are named Dugan (played by Richard Speight Jr.) and Stilwell (played by Max Arciniega). The movie’s opening scene shows how far Ketchum and his men are willing to go to get what they want.
Ketchum tells Henry that he and his cronies are looking for a bank robber who got away with a lot of cash. Ketchum’s description of the man fits the description of Curry. However, Henry doesn’t quite trust these three strangers either, so Henry lies and says that he hasn’t see anyone fitting that description. Meanwhile, Curry tells Henry that Ketchum is lying and that the sheriff’s uniform and badge that Ketchum is wearing were actually stolen in the shootout that wounded Curry.
When Ketchum asks to look around the property, Henry gets hostile and says no, so this reaction arouses Ketchum’s suspicions that Henry might be hiding something. What follows is a tension-filled battle where viewers have to guess who’s telling the truth and who’s lying. And because “Old Henry” is a Western, there are inevitable gun shootouts that take up a great deal of the action. Henry and Wyatt also have their trust in each other tested in this life-or-death situation.
“Old Henry” is a great example of a movie that does a lot with a low budget, a relatively small number of people in the cast and only a few locations. Because the movie doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, Henry’s personality is shown through his actions and facial expressions, thanks to the admirable acting talent of Nelson. “Old Henry” is a taut mystery thriller wrapped in the genre of a Western that effectively shows the lure of America’s Old West as a place for new beginnings and wild endings.
Shout! Studios released “Old Henry” in select U.S. cinemas on October 1, 2021, and on digital and VOD on October 8, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in various U.S. cities and in Quebec City, Canada, the drama “Embattled” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians and African Americans) representing the middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: An arrogant superstar mixed-martial arts (MMA) fighter has an up-and-down relationship with his mild-mannered 18-year-old son, and the two men end up battling each other in a high-profile MMA fight.
Culture Audience: “Embattled” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in compelling sports movies that are also emotional family dramas.
It seems like in every other sports movie about an underdog who’s fighting a champion, the underdog has “daddy issues” from having an absentee, abusive or neglectful father. “Embattled” is one of those movies, but it’s a cut above the average film that takes place in the world of mixed martial arts (MMA), largely because of the impressive acting by the “Embattled” cast members. Directed by Nick Sarkisov and written by David McKenna, “Embattled” has enough gritty realism about a dysfunctional and damaged family to make up for the occasional hokey dialogue and the far-fetched but not entirely impossible scenario of a famous MMA champ doing a high-profile fight against his son.
The father and son at the center of this family feud are hard-drinking, trash-talking Cash Boykins (played by Stephen Dorff) and his kindler, gentler offspring Jett Boykins (played by Darren Mann), who live in their hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, and have had an unstable and unpredictable relationship for years. The story unfolds in layers over how their relationship has changed, in order to explain why they ended up fighting in a “death match” scenario on TV. “Embattled” is also a scathing look at the cycle of abuse in families and how one person can do damage that can last for years.
In the beginning of “Embattled,” all seems to be going fairly smoothly between Cash and Jett, who is 18 years old and in his last year of high school. Cash is a world-famous but controversial MMA welterweight champ in the fictional World Fighting Association (WFA) promotion, and he has been training Jett on how to become a professional MMA fighter. Jett is not as aggressive and ruthless as Cash, who is excessively crude, sexist and proud to flaunt his obnoxiousness. Cash sees life and treats people as if anyone who isn’t a straight, white, able-bodied American male is an inferior human being.
Cash’s bigotry is on full display in the first MMA fight shown in the movie. Cash is at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas to do battle against a Russian fighter named Timofei Kozlov (played by Ethan Melisano), who hails from St. Petersburg. The opponents’ stats are announced sometime before the fight. Cash is 5’9″ and 171 pounds, with a record of 37 wins and one loss. Timofei is 5’8″ and 170 pounds, with 18 wins and four losses.
In the walk-up to the fight, Cash yells about his Russian opponent: “I get to kill myself a Commie! Lock and load, motherfuckers!” And later, when Cash faces off against Timofei before the opening-round bell rings, Cash declares arrogantly, “This election-meddling son of a bitch won’t take long.” Timofei sneers in response, “America sucks dick.” This tradeoff of insults is the introduction to a brutal brawl that ends with Timofei’s crushing defeat.
On a private plane after the fight, Cash’s toxic masculinity continues as he celebrates his victory. With him on the plane is his small entourage of people which includes Jett; Cash’s second wife, Jade (played by Karrueche Tran), who’s about 20 years younger than Cash; and some assorted employees. Cash wastes no time in flirting with an attractive flight attendant named Desirée, who politely brushes off his unwanted sexual innuendos. When she brings a drink to Cash, he leers at her while saying, “Ooh, yummy yum yum. The drink looks tasty too.”
Cash also tries to get the flight attendant to take a sexual interest in quiet and unassuming Jett, who doesn’t want to get involved in any hookups that Cash wants to arrange. Cash begins to brag about Jett to Desirée, who keeps a friendly and professional demeanor. When the flight attendant walks to another part of the plane out of hearing distance, Cash scolds Jett, “Are you fuckin’ blind? She’s tighter than a 7-year-old Korean boy!”
When Jett tells Cash that he doesn’t need his help in finding a date, Cash replies, “Since when did throwing out a résumé for a tasty piece of hair pie become a goddamn crime?” Cash’s offers Jett the use of his mansion as a place to bring Desirée for a sexual tryst, but Jett declines the offer. Cash is also an extremely macho father who thinks that if he has a son who doesn’t think of women as sexual conquests, the son must be a wimp or possibly gay.
Cash acts this way in full view of his wife Jade. And what does she have to say when Cash makes blatant sexual advances to the flight attendant? Jade tells her: “Desirée, sweetheart, please do not encourage that cheese.”
Jade is fully aware that Cash can be a sexually aggressive jerk, but his “bad boy” persona seems to be part of the reason why she was attracted to him in the first place. And because Jade appears to be a “trophy wife,” Cash has a charming side that treats her like a sexy goddess. Cash and Jade also have a 9-year-old son together named Kingston (played by Jakari Fraser), who is sweet and adorable and so far seems untainted by Cash’s bullying ways.
But one thing that really bothers Jade about Cash is how he’s mistreated his ex-wife and his two children from this first marriage. The marriage ended very badly 10 years before, for reasons that are revealed in a flashback. Cash’s ex-wife Susan (played by Elisabeth Reaser) used to be a high-ranking tennis player. But since the divorce from Cash, Susan has been struggling to make ends meet.
When this story takes place, Susan is working as a waitress to support Jett and his 15-year-old brother Quinn, nicknamed Q (played by Colin McKenna), who has Williams syndrome. Quinn and Jett are very close to each other. Jett treats Quinn like a protective and loving older brother, even though Jett sometimes gets impatient with Quinn.
Cash is very ashamed to have Quinn as his son and treats Quinn as inferior to Jett. Cash cruelly calls Quin a “tard,” as shorthand for “retard.” Cash also has a lot of deep-seated anger against Susan, whom he calls “Looney Tunes,” even though there’s no evidence that Susan has any mental-health issues. It’s one of many examples of how Cash belittles and demeans people in order to boost his already overinflated ego.
Jade feels strongly that Cash should try to mend his relationship with Jett and Quinn, and she wants Kingston to get to know his half-brothers better. But Cash refuses to let Quinn be a part of Cash’s family activities with Jade and Kingston. And viewers will get the impression that the main reason why Cash and Jett are now back in each other’s lives is because Cash wants to mold Jett into being another version of Cash.
Even though Cash is a multimillionaire who has four houses and 10 cars, he refuses to help out Susan financially, even when Quinn needed heart surgery and back surgery. Susan has not remarried. But even if a remarriage made her ineligible for alimony, she’s still entitled to child support.
Did Cash and Susan have a rock-solid prenuptial agreement where she wasn’t entitled to any of his money that he made during the marriage? Did she have terrible legal representation in the divorce? Or did something else happen to explain why she got such a raw deal of not getting reasonable alimony and child support? Those questions aren’t really answered in the movie, but the flashback showing the turning point in Cash and Susan’s bad marriage implies that she very likely chose to walk away from the marriage with no money because she was desperate to be rid of her lousy husband.
Jade and Cash argue because Jade thinks that Cash should be more compassionate to Susan, Jett and Quinn. Cash firmly believes that Susan, Jett and Quinn don’t deserve his financial help or compassion because that would be “coddling” them. Cash and Jett have been recently connecting because Cash is training Jett to be a professional MMA fighter. But beyond MMA, their father/son relationship is still a work in progress.
Jett has been accompanying Cash to as many of Cash’s MMA fights as possible. And this frequent traveling means that Jett has been skipping a lot of classes at school. He’s on the verge of flunking out of a math class, and a failing grade in this class would mean that he can’t graduate from high school.
Jett’s math teacher Ms. Malek (played by Lindsey Garrett) recommends that he get a tutor. It just so happens that Jett has a crush on a pretty and smart student named Keaton Carmichael (played by Ava Capri), who is headed to West Point after graduation. Guess who ends up being Jett’s tutor?
Meanwhile, Quinn goes to the same school, but he’s in a class for kids with special needs. The class is taught by Dan Stevens (played by Donald Faison), a military veteran who is also a paraplegic. Dan treats his students with respect, and he has a special bond with Quinn. It’s one of the reasons why Jett decides to play matchmaker and encourages his mother Susan and Dan to start dating each other.
Jett and Cash have been trying to improve their father/son relationship, but Cash makes it difficult because he’s relentless with his criticism of Jett. During their training sessions, Cash even insults Jett’s taste in music to try to make Jett feel like a “sissy.” When Jett says he likes the music of Colbie Caillat (who’s best known for her 2007 hit “Bubbly”) and other female singer/songwriters, Cash admonishes Jett by telling him that he should be listening to hard rock/heavy metal acts like Rob Zombie, Deftones and System of a Down. Jett responds good-naturedly by telling Cash: “I love my girls. Deal with it.”
It’s clear that Jett is a good guy who both loves and fears his father. Jett wants Cash’s approval but doesn’t necessarily want to be like Cash. And it could be left up to viewers’ interpretation if Jett really has a passion for MMA or if his ambition to be a successful MMA fighter is mainly because he wants to impress Cash. Jett’s worries about his future after high school and his need to get Cash’s approval take a toll on Jett’s self-esteem, because there’s a point in the story where Jett breaks down and tells Susan that he thinks of himself as a loser.
Although it’s not completely explored in “Embattled,” there’s a layer of anxiety in Susan feeling torn about her animosity toward her ex-husband (whom she really distrusts) and allowing Cash back into Jett’s life. How long should she hang on to those resentments toward her ex-husband? How much can Cash be trusted?
Money is a huge motivating factor for much of what happens in this story. Susan expresses a lot of concern when Cash tells her one day that he’s entered Jett into a fight with a 12th-ranked MMA fighter. Susan doesn’t think Jett is ready to compete with someone on that level, but Jett is a legal adult, and they could use the prize money if he wins.
Cash is an apt name for this blowhard MMA fighter because he’s very money-hungry and sees himself as a know-it-all wheeler dealer. He goes to WFA co-owners David Adelsberg (played by Mark Fite) and Rami Elbahri (played by Adam Karst), and attempts to pressure them into giving him and other MMA fighters better perks, such as bigger minimum fees, health-insurance benefits, pensions and higher revenue sharing. Cash threatens to form a union for MMA fighters if the WFA owners don’t give in to his demands. As the most famous fighter of WFA, Cash tells them that they need him more then he needs them.
The story in “Embattled” becomes much more interesting in the last half of the movie. Jett is at Cash’s Birmingham mansion for a small house party, where he observes Cash teaching Kingston some basic fight techniques. Cash grows impatient with Kingston and becomes verbally abusive and physically aggressive with the child. It triggers a flashback memory in Jett that leads to him becoming estranged from Cash again.
This falling out results in greedy Cash coming up with the idea of pitting himself against Jett in a major televised fight. And because their estrangement has become very bitter, Jett decides to go to Quebec City to train with a French Canadian named Claude (played by Saïd Taghmaoui), who is a major rival from Cash’s past. (“Embattled” was really filmed in Alabama.) The battle between father and son in the ring is suspensefully filmed, but the real battle in this story is over trust and emotions.
What makes “Embattled” stand out is that it’s not a simple “good versus evil” story or a basic “champion versus challenger” sports movie. Cash can easily be considered a predictable villain, but there are several moments in the film where Dorff brings real depth to the character. Cash is a terrible husband and father, but is he evil or just really damaged?
And the abuse that Cash inflicts will make people wonder why he turned out that way. It should come as no surprise that Cash’s father abused him as a child. It doesn’t excuse Cash’s awfulness, but “Embattled” shows viewers in some harrowing ways how abuse can be denied or blocked out but can still have devastating effects.
Ultimately, the heart and soul of the movie belong to Jett. Cash might be a lost cause, but how much will Jett follow in his father’s footsteps? Mann gives an admirable performance representing the possibility that the cycle of abuse in a family can be stopped and the healing can begin.
IFC Films released “Embattled” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on November 20, 2020.