I need see nothing more than Seamus Tierney as the cinematographer on a film and I’m along for the ride. From his crystalline visuals in the vignette styled “Burning Palms” for first time director Chris Landon to developing a tonal bandwidth along with actor Josh Radnor when Radnor moved into the director’s chair with “Happythankyoumoreplease” and “Liberal Arts” to the gritty emotional texture and world of John Gray’s “White Irish Drinkers” and most recently, his work with another first-time director, Lake Bell and her debut feature “In A World”, Seamus Tierney has a level of excellence and storytelling in his lighting and lensing that captivates, enhances and enthralls. With THE WELL, his use of light and shadow and saturation of color to capture and create the hollow barren horror that in today’s world of climate change and global warming, is all too real. And that’s exactly what he brings to Thomas Hammock’s debut feature, THE WELL.
From an original script by Jacob Forman that blends horror, sci-fi and post-apocalyptic terror with a show down at the OK Corral vibe, director Hammock calls on his own vast experience in production design (most recently, the visually stunning and terrifying “You’re Next”) and paints an engrossing and indelible world where water is non-existent and rain hasn’t fallen in more than a decade (sounds like California now). Few survive. At Wallace Farm for the Wayward Youth, the lush green valley that once surrounded it is now dry, brittle dust. From what Kendal knows from listening to the ham radio, it’s like that everywhere yet she and a few others, like Dean and young Alby, dream of the day when they can escape the attic hideaway and the acrid grit and dog-eat-dog world of survival they face at Wallace Farm. But dreams won’t fill the taps or their water bottles or hydrate them.
Although the minimal underground water supply is decreasing daily, Wallace Farm does have the last working well in the region. Eeking out survival by drawing whatever water remains underground from THE WELL on the farm, there is no more precious commodity and the battle for water has long been a battle with much spilled blood thanks to corporate raiding water hoarder, Carson. Carson and his goons have traveled the countryside killing all those in their path and taking control of whatever water and wells remain. And now he wants the one at Wallace Farm.
With Dean suffering from advanced kidney failure, it falls to Kendal to make her way through the region to scavenge abandoned vehicles for parts that can be used to rebuild a broken down old crop-duster at the farm. But the search is not easy thanks to Carson and his un-merry band of killers. Armed with a rusty axe and pump-action shotgun as her only means of protection, with every step, Kendal knows it could be her last.
As fragile as Kendal’s world is, it gets rocked even more when the ruthless Carson makes his way to Wallace Farm and what is now the only well left in the valley and what underground water lies beneath it. Kendal, Dean and Alby are now the last ones standing. With a sick man and a young boy to protect, does Kendal stay and fight or succumb to the fate of the world at the hands of Carson?
In one of two films in which she appears at LAFF this year (the other being “The Young Kieslowski”), here as Kendal, Haley Lu Richardson brings an intensity and determination that resonates, adding yet another strong female protagonist to the cinematic horizon. Matching veteran actor John Gries note for note with his performance as the evil Carson, Richardson is one actress to keep an eye on. As for Gries, although effective as Carson, he doesn’t bring quite enough menace to the role. Fast becoming one of my favorite young actors is Max Charles who is a delight as the young Alby, showing off some serious dramatic acting chops. A familiar face to “Twilight” fans as Seth, in THE WELL, Booboo Stewart shows growth as an actor while giving a strong turn as the infirm Dean, pushing Stewart to hit more dramatic notes than with his previous endeavors.
A compelling and interesting script that is only elevated further by performance and Seamus Tierney’s visuals, noticeably absent, however, are the rich details of backstory which are necessary in a film tackling an issue of this magnitude - water scarcity on a global level - particularly given that this is an issue not rooted in fantasy but one which in 2014 is at our front door. The absence of explanation via story, dialogue or visuals as to practical survival concerns such as food and the ongoing source of energy (which we still typically attribute to being generated by water) also cry for more exposition and depth. A big highlight for me is the implementation of ham radio as an integral component to the script and a means for connecting to the outside world.
Visuals are impeccable, exhibiting Hammock’s skill with shot composition, which is then showcased by Seamus Tierney’s cinematography. Steeped in natural light, Tierney and Hammock breathe emotional life into the dry, parched world of Wallace Farm while Tierney’s often widescreen aesthetic furthers the isolated terror of Kendal’s battle, intensifying the dire situation at hand and its inherent violence, resulting in a palpable sensory experience.
Adding further technical polish to THE WELL, editing by Sarah Broshar and Adam Wingard is keenly paced, keeping the suspense at rapier levels.
With its World Premiere at Los Angeles Film Festival 2014, director Thomas Hammock and company go well beyond the expected making THE WELL, a “Must See” film for all.
Directed by Thomas Hammock
Written by Jacob Forman
Cast: Haley Lu Richardson, Booboo Stewart, Max Charles, John Gries
(Los Angeles Film Festival 2014 review)