Skip Larson has become a one hit wonder in the literary field. The aftermath of his initial work, a best seller success, has never again been duplicated as Larson’s wretched and dispassionate heart and mind hit an unscalable writer’s block that can’t afford to pay the ever mounting bills. When a stranger approaches him at one of his dismal book signings, an opportunity presents itself to meet serial best-selling novelist, Chester Everett McGraw, at his private ranch where Larson has to decide whether to sign McGraw’s rigorously partisan and severe contract for wealth, prestige, and a chance to co-author McGraw’s next big novel after being cut off from the outside world for six months or walk away from everything without penalty and return to his mundane life struggle. Larson agrees to McGraw’s extreme terms and begins working chapter after chapter on McGraw’s next literary masterpiece, but as the days turn to weeks and each draft is ridiculed and critically trashed, an irritated Larson itches to leave but the snake-tongued McGraw, his brutish bodyguard, and even the beautiful maid, who has suddenly taken a liken to him, keep tortuously motivating him back to novel drawing board whether he likes it or not.
Putting pen to paperwork with a looming deadline on the horizon is already stressfully hair pulling, but when the cold steel of a gun muzzle is pressed against your sweaty temple, the pressure grows tenfold to get the creative juices flowing before the contract is up in Jeff Kerr and Ray Spivey’s co-written and directed 2019 exploitation thriller, “Writer’s Block.” The independent feature is the second collaborated project between Kerr and Spivey following their 2016 documentary, “The Last of the Moonlight Towers,” about the obsolete street illumination system, the last of its kind, of electric light towers in Austin, Texas. Continuing the trend of holding their filmmaking shop in their home state but not exploring non-fictional antiquated monolithic engineering marvels, the directing duo concentrate their Texas-based shot film toward being a cinematic turn-pager saturated with perfidious suspicion and crackpot characters that keep the road toward a clandestine endgame alluring and mysterious, unfolding in a similar regard to that of its general context of an exceedingly multifarious murder mystery novel. Kerr and Spivey’s Sharp Town Productions serve as the attached production company.
Kerr and Spivey shop locally when choosing their downtrodden literary hero, Skip Larson, plagued with a wretched past and the desirable callings of the bottle. The filmmakers settle on “Fear the Walking Dead’s” Craig Nigh who can sell smartass with the best of them and be as tough as nails when push comes to shove. On paper, Larson’s a forlorn gambler risking his chance at life by accepting a seemingly glamorous, one-in-a-life, game-changing deal by a fellow writer he admires, but with a number of fishy, tall-tail signs of deception and corruption by McGraw and his goon, Digger, Larson can come off naïve, especially when he sticks around still after his free will fractures under physical violence and threatened to be shot. The oppressive McGraw obviously has an ace up his sleeve in his proposed partnership with Larson and, never once, feels sincere in building Larson’s library with his dreams. I found Mike Gassaway’s performance as McGraw to be one-note. “The Next Kill” Gassaway tussles with sly intentions of a manipulative best-seller author, devolving into an unintentional weaker ranch obstacle that dwindles down McGraw to be more of a façade behind the true game being played against an unwary Larson. Though McGraw as the brains, the cowboy hat wearing former oil rig worker, Digger, provided much of the muscle whose anxious temperament kept him from seeing the final stages of McGraw’s malevolent game. Chris Warner finally lands a principle role that isn’t a short lived bit part that’s labeled Flatbed Driver or Prison Guard. Instead, Digger Haskell seems like a teddy bear good old boy that Warner can inherently step into without having to get lost in a new persona and Warner fleshes out Digger’s hasty disdain in how the slow progression keeps him for enjoying what he loves to do best – being a hired goon – but the character rarely established a definitive connection of servitude toward McGraw other than the notable writer taking the oil rig injured man under his wing, causing some unresolved character development. Cataline is perhaps the most underwhelming character as the immigrant house cleaner who falls in love with Skip Larson. Played by Jeannie Carter-Cruz (“Sasquatch! Curse of the Tree Guardian”), Catalina bashfully wills herself around the house, not really cleaning much in the audiences scope of her profession, and becomes discreetly entangled with the struggle writer for unknown reasons she herself couldn’t explain, leaving her, and Carter-Cruz, exposed in an under-seasoned character course. Katusha Robert, Avery Lewis, and Natasha Buffington rounds out of the cast.
“Writer’s Block” shoves an easily relatable theme of success never comes easy right into audiences’ laps as Skip Larson’s humiliation exhibits as much through literary famed Chester McGraw’s browbeating tactics ranging from verbal assaults to unwanted sexual persuasions. Not by McGraw. That would be gross. Yet, in essence, the actual frustration condition of writer’s block for an author in any facet is akin to the sensation of conquering in what seems the impossible. Once Skip Larson tips the odds into his favor, the woebegone writer’s line graph to success skyrockets off the chart after a bit of tough love motivation stemmed by McGraw and his boot camp, side-hustling ranch. However, “Writer’s Block” suffers from the titular misgiving in the form of pacing irregularities, a loitering third act, and a paper thin Skip Larson backstory that only dabbles into his post-family tragedy alcoholic stupors and his peradventure subversive dealings with his gangster cousin. The gangster cousin tangent is by far the most offshoot subplot underlined only in flashbacks and at the finale that introduces a character that has seemingly never been a functional part of the story but is pivotal in Skip Larson’s corner. The crux of the story’s issues is that it tries to incorporate too much whereas the basic building blocks, the pure premise, would have sufficed and have been modestly more successful if stuck to instead of throwing a curve ball of horror into the macabre construction of McGraw’s collective work of best sellers as trophies that becomes synonymous with his obsession for hunting, if not more so conquering, the wild game he annihilates.
When a wordsmith’s mental typewriter stalls and the hands hang still with fingers dangling above the alphanumeric keys, waiting for inspiration to flow through the very fingertips that provide financial stability and creative vigor, use the Gravitas Ventures released “Writer’s Block” as a tool to unstick the tacky words, pry open the oppressive blockade of the expression dam, and let the flood of literature be unbridled. Released earlier this month on November 3rd, “Writer’s Block” is now available on VOD and streaming platforms, such as Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Fandango Now, and Google Play as well as all major cable and satellite platforms. The 98 minute film is shot in the capable hands of Alex Walker who stays put mostly in natural lighting, swerving almost unnoticeably at times into various colored lighting (mostly blue or purple) and utilizes the story’s drone to capture effective aerial shots. There were no bonus features included with the screener nor were any bonus scenes during or after the credits. “Writer’s Block” is a tousle survival-thriller careening toward a grisly surprise that requires a little more spick and span shaping for a grittier exploitation.