On a cold Thanksgiving afternoon, Pete Church returns to his frostbitten hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin in search of his father, the town drunk. Having no idea where to begin, he calls on his townie brother, Bob, to help him until the next morning when he’s scheduled to catch a bus back to the West Coast. And with the exception of a few anticlimactic twists, that’s it. Sawdust City is not a bad film, but it’s a film that loses steam halfway through and never quite recovers.
The first half is promising. We see the brothers go from bar to bar in search of their infamous father. They run into random people that point them in the next direction, all the while filling the silence between their destinations with filler conversation so we know what’s going on, what has happened between them, and what the future holds in store.
Pete (Carl McLaughlin) is a navy man fresh out of basic training. He is disciplined, polite, respectful, and traditional. He’s the kind of man who doesn’t like to drink in the afternoon and has a hard time accepting charity. To call him a mama’s boy would be an insult, however, because he’s his Dad’s son through and through. And no matter how hard he tries not to be, he is inevitably becoming his father.
Bob (David Nordstrom), on the other hand, is the bearded, small-town, big mouthed older-brother. He’s unemployed, disorganized, financially careless, and tends to get himself into trouble without really considering the consequences. However, despite those personal truths, he is quite protective, loyal, and generous to others.
We see Bob’s generosity in Gene (Lee Lynch), a character that’s only in a third of the film, but really gives the movie a pulse when he’s on screen (and steals almost every ounce of alcohol in sight, at Bob’s expense). Gene’s a selfish, bar-hopping moocher. After promising he can help find the father, Pete and Bob take him along for a portion of the ride.
The film builds nicely until the midway point. For some reason (maybe due to the abundance of alcohol cycling through their veins) they seem to lose their focus. They essentially stop looking for the father and get themselves in a series of easily-avoidable shenanigans; such as Bob making out with a random, undeveloped party girl when he has a pregnant wife at home.
However, one redeeming factor is the fitting soundtrack. Bon Iver, Dr. Dog, Gayngs, Benji Hughes and others contribute to the tone and believable realism of a frigid Wisconsin. There is also a talk radio show that plays almost like a narrator. The voice is extremely soothing and monotone, but adds almost more than the music, oddly enough.
The acting is also quite good for this type of independent flick. Sawdust City is like an ultra-digital, high-quality student film. I guess one could attribute the high-quality to the well-written script. Nordstrom is certainly the more believable character out of the two brothers, but again, he wrote the words, so that’s really not fair to say. Another contribution to the quality is the excellent location. Eau Claire is a beautiful city blanketed in a paralyzed calm. It genuinely feels like bars are the only source of entertainment.
There are times where the low budget rears its ugly head and others when it works in the filmmaker’s favor. It has a very raw, grainy look, which is perfect for a small town in Wisconsin. But the night scenes are a bit amateur. I’m not splitting hairs here either. It’s like, buy a light.
The film ends with no real climax. It felt like Nordstrom wanted me to be wowed at the end or perhaps sympathetic. But really, I just looked at the screen and said, “You guys suck.” After the halfway point, I didn’t care about any of them, in part due to the fact that they both turned into semi-despicable people. It’s sad because the relationship was strong early on; especially how the pair reacted to Gene’s nonsense. More information was needed, however, about Carley, Bob’s wife, and more understanding would have been helpful about why Pete was so insistent on finding his father in the first place (which is never really explained).