There really are only so many different stories. The trick is to tell one that feels new in more than just the details.
Consider the following setup — a criminal trying to go straight is pulled back into the world of violence he so desperately tried to leave behind. We’ve seen it a hundred times before from Les Miserables to Swordfish, but what makes the best examples stand out are the characters and the world around which the story unfolds. Writer/director Daniel Grove‘s feature debut, The Loner, is set in modern day Los Angeles, but it’s an L.A. that feels new and fresh with nearly every frame.
Behrouz (Reza Sixo Safai) was a child soldier in Iran during his country’s war with Iraq in the 1980’s, but after escaping the slaughter at the front lines he made his way west to the land of opportunity. What should have been a brand new life instead found him trading a sandy battlefield for one paved with concrete and neon, but now the time has come to leave his gangster ways behind. He’s pursuing his own American dream and becoming a real estate agent, but addictions old and new take hold leaving him at odds with his ex boss, Cirrus (Parviz Sayyad). On the run, and with the lives of his girlfriend Oksana (Helena Mattsson) and her son Sasha (Gregory Kasyan) at risk because of him, Behrouz realizes he may not have left that front line behind after all.
At its core, The Loner is a tale of rival gangsters, past and present sins, and the danger of hope, but the story is told with a personality and perspective beyond the usual. It’s a wholly different world existing beneath our own, and like Roddy Piper’s character in John Carpenter’s They Live, it feels as if we’re viewing it anew through special lenses. It’s a neon-lit fever dream where culture and sexuality tease an undefined fluidity, and it feels continually fresh even as it builds towards an expected face-off.
The story beats see Persian gangsters doing business with Russian mobsters led by Evgeny (Julian Sands), and the double crosses and acts of villainy add up to well-defined genre sums. The joy is in watching Behrouz and the others move through the increasingly blood-drenched nightscape of L.A. with their immigrant history nipping at their heels. There’s a commentary here on the dreams and ideals of newcomers leaving their harsh realities behind for the bosom of America only to find the same challenges remain. They’re dressed up differently and speak a different language, but the struggle remains.
The intermingling of a Persian gangster and his Russian moll against the backdrop of an American city is further removed from the typical by the presence of ambiguous sexuality. The men wear bright nail polish, Evgeny’s proclivities involve him in a robe and a woman’s wig, and both men and women alike seem drawn to Behrouz — one old friend and new enemy seems drawn to his eyes in particular, but this isn’t a nod to derogatory cliches of decades past where a sadistic henchman’s sexuality is used as shorthand for his “weirdness.” This is simply the world we’ve been made privy to.
These characters and story turns that feel both familiar and uncommon are brought to beautiful life by cinematographer Steven Capitano Calitri who paints the walls with color and shadow. Dens of depravity take on the aura of places of worship, and violence — when not marred by CG assists — weaves in and out of the settings with smooth ease. Fights take center stage before moving behind door frames as the camera continues to roll, only to return with the brawlers both bloodied and bruised. Equally important to the world-building is the synth score by Photek that helps create atmosphere as well as it does pace and intensity.
The Loner is a familiar narrative viewed through an other-worldly lens. You may know where it’s going, but the journey remains an arresting and engaging one anyway.