Juanita Wilson’s second feature film is a down-home pulp-magazine story of a movie. Strong casting and playful direction make for a picture that’s as tragic as it is humorous.
Sammy (Jake Weary) is an ex-con with a big heart and an unwavering belief in the power of friendship. Trouble has a way of finding Sammy, as he can’t seem to go straight for too long. Weary is playing the seeker noir hero in a classical set-up, albeit one covered in dust and bathed in sweltering Southern sunshine.
A short time into the film, a night of heavy drinking leads Sammy back to small-time housebreaking, and when his getaway driver speeds away, it looks as though Sammy’s parole is about to be up.
His luck isn’t all bad though, as he soon falls in with the Merridew siblings, Jamalee (Julia Garner) and Jason (Nick Roux).
This pair, at first glance, look like some hip rockabilly outfit. Jamalee’s hair, for which the film is named, is anime red, Jason is well put-together and talks the talk of a Southern dandy.
The Merridews greet Sammy in the style of a Gothic novel, holding a candelabra and finishing sentences for one another. This meet-cute is soon broken up by the law, and the mysterious siblings disappear into the night.
Sam’s hard living catches up with him and he’s soon made homeless. With nowhere to go and no one else to tun to, Sammy goes in search of the ghostly kids he met the night previous. His voice-over reminds us that he is a believer in “the bunch who will have him” and the Merridews, he hopes, are that bunch.
Tomato Red is a film acutely aware of the noir mode’s conventions, adhering to and bending them where appropriate. Sammy is the archetypal noir loner with nothing to lose, because he has nothing.
Jamalee is a fascinating and alluring presence and functions as something of a femme fatale. While it is the case that these misfit people are drawn to one another because of their outsider status, Sammy finds in the Merridews something atypical of a noir picture: family.
In its early stages, the narrative appears to be heading in a Bonnie and Clyde direction. Indeed, some of the sun-soaked photography and easygoing pace of the picture recall Arthur Penn’s 1967 film. There’s a lot to admire in Juanita Wilson’s direction, especially in these relaxed intervals.
She perfectly captures the sunny bleakness of the Merridew trailer park through long takes of nothing in particular. We see dust blowing in the wind, hear crickets and birds of prey in the distance and see Sammy and his adopted family go about their daily grind.
Like Sam, the Merridews do not want to be petty criminals, but trouble has a way of finding them. Jamalee has big dreams. She wants more from her life and wishes to move away from the trailer park for good.
Her characterisation reminded me a lot of Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables, not just because of her red hair, but because of her flighty dreaming and scheming. There’s a naivety to her that’s unlike a traditional femme fatale, and it lulls the audience (and Sammy) into forgetting just what she’s capable of and what she is willing to do to achieve her lofty dreams.
There’s a touch of the social-conscience film in here as well, as the film illustrates the marginalised status of the Merridews and others like them. The Merridew matriarch, Beverly, played by Anna Friel, works as a prostitute, and her clients include high-ranking police and town officials but their services are unavailable to her. The cards are stacked against Bev and her family and always will be.
The house and trailer where the Merridew family live is literally on the edge of town. You have to take “a couple of left turns” to get there, and in noir tradition these left turns are all the wrong ones. This outsider status, and the injustices that come along with it, is central to Tomato Red’s tragedy.
Jamalee’s big dreams are stifled by the world around her. When she goes for a job interview at the town’s country club, she is forcibly thrown out. In this same sequence, Sam is beaten when he tries to intervene. The scene is filmed in sweeping handheld-camera movements that show the country club members jeering the Merridew siblings and Sammy.
The impression here is that these people are not any better than the Merridews. The mob are still good old boys and girls at heart, rough characters with the trappings of an upper-class existence but the same quickness to violence as the “trailer trash” family from the outskirts of town.
This exclusion forces anti-social behaviour out of the Merridews. There’s a music-video-like sequence with a drift of pigs that’s a welcome respite from the harshness of what’s come before. But this moment of fun comes with its share of heartache too. In this case, the Merridews act just as they are expected to because they have no choice; the law is not available to folks like them.
Time and time again the film shows us that the police and county bodies are unwilling to help. There is plenty of tragedy. Every day is a struggle that drives home the sense that there is nothing else for people like the Merridews. They’re born into it, and, as is the case in pulp-y stories, they’ll likely die in it too.
This forces a suffocating closeness between Sammy and the rest of the family. Relationships are undefined and changeable.
An admirable aspect of the film is how it resists Sammy’s wishes. He is not in control of the narrative and acts as something of a messenger-boy-cum-enforcer for the family. His destiny is tied to that of Jamalee and Jamie, for better or worse. Whenever Sam does attempt to regain control of his life and actions, it’s met with disaster and heartbreak.
Sammy is a hero in the dark, all muscle and belief but no foresight. His aimlessness is signposted by his refusal to button a shirt. Weary gives a good performance; he is sympathetic, charming and a little frightening.
More than anything Sammy comes off as a lost puppy, wanting to belong, sick with love and willing to do whatever it takes to make Jamalee, Bev and Jamie happy. He’s pathetic but likeable and that makes the arc of Tomato Red all the more desperate.
Tomato Red’s Southern ambience and noir stylings make for a very watchable and compelling picture. Juanita Wilson’s direction brings with it a feeling of social realism that augments the kitchen-sink tragedy of the picture and sells the no-hope narrative in a way that’s powerful and effective, but lively as well.
What’s more, there’s a sense that behind the setting and some of the particulars, Tomato Red could take place in any small town. It shows the quiet malice of standing by and letting people slip through the cracks of society, of not wanting to help, or writing people off for simply existing.