At the beginning of Shadows, 18-year-old Cody (Rahart Adams) is breaking bad. For he is starting to hang around young prostitutes in a peculiar bid to get closer to his tough-as-nails sex-working mother Jewel (Krista Allen) – who abandoned him as a baby, and has only recently reentered his life. He is also ‘upgrading’ from low-level homegrown weed sales to dealing methamphetamine – and not just any old crystal meth, but a new variety with an unusual purity that immediately recalls TV’s Breaking Bad.
Merely laying hands on such high-value stuff attracts trouble, and sure enough, this promising teen, who has managed to raise himself out of the foster care system and is quite a bit smarter than his friends, now has a contract out on his head from Nicky (David Labrava), the terrifyingly ruthless criminal kingpin who is hoping to control the new drug’s distribution. And so this feature from writer/director Michael Matteo Rossi brings two worlds into violent collision, as naïve Cody, in trying to be badass, quickly discovers that there are far worse people out there.
Nicky sends the preternaturally calm Dean (Eric Etebari) to find and kill Cody – which is lucky for the teenager, given that Nicky’s otherwise steadfastly loyal enforcer has a past connection with Jewel and through her with Cody that that will make him switch allegiances in an instant and become the boy’s protector against overwhelming criminal force. Now Dean, Cody and Cody’s hooker girlfriend Michelle (Rachel Alig) are on the run and under fire, as Dean’s former gangland ‘brother’ Axel (Francis Capra) leads an army of goons against them with extremely hostile intent.
Shadows is not without its problems. Considerable suspension of disbelief is required to accept the truly wild coincidence that enables Dean to be asked to assassinate a stranger with whom in fact he shares a history. Having secured, in something of a coup, the services of Vernon Wells (Wez from Mad Max 2, 1981) to play a malodorous, ultra-sleazy john, Rossi seems incapable of calling ‘cut’ on the genre legend’s lengthy scenes. Similarly overextended is the ‘comic relief’ regularly provided by Cody’s hapless friends Sam (Michael Pashan) and Mark (Adam Carbone) – and a sequence involving this pair’s improbable participation in a supposed sting operation makes about as much sense as the film’s title. Conversely what ought to be a key moment in the film – the reunion of Jewel and Dean after 25 years apart – appears to have been omitted altogether, creating a very awkward transition between one scene and another.
“Family will always be the last binding straw of any man,” says Nicky, “no matter how much time is past.” Indeed, Rossi’s film is not just bloody, but about blood – a tale of two different families, with competing claims on loyalty. Cody’s relationship with Jewel may be deeply dysfunctional, but this one-time ‘crack whore’ has given up drugs and looks after her female colleagues like a mother – and there is a foundation between estranged mother and son on which it is possible to build something better – whereas Nicky keeps his crew close through threats and intimidation (including to their actual family members), pitting his ‘sons’ against each other and showing no real care for their wellbeing. Blood here is thicker than water, as the obsession with ‘family’ (genetic or otherwise) found in, say, the Fast and Furious franchise is taken for a dark spin.
Cody’s coming-of-age is measured in violence – in his learning to handle a gun, and to kill – as he and Dean ultimately resolve their issues through similar acts of cold-blooded, vindictive murder. Breaking bad is indeed part and parcel of this adolescent’s brutalising reintegration into the family unit, making Shadows a bleak portrait of generational trauma and questionable recovery at America’s criminal margins.
strap: Michael Matteo Rossi’s coming-of-age crime thriller sees a rootless young man rediscovering family as he breaks bad
© Anton Bitel