“Where is she?” asks a bald, moustachioed man who has pursued another through a warehouse basement and pinned him to the wall. The bald man then threatens to shoot his captive in the heart if he will not tell, and this is no idle threat – for within seconds, he has fired a single bullet, and the other man falls dead. The impressionistic manner in which this opening sequence is shot – all laconic tough-guy talk and frenzied close-ups, with the violence only shown indirectly – is a reliable index to the genre of Toxic Impulses, as is the shadowy imagery of the stylised, part-animated credits that follow. For writer/director Kyle Schadt (Silent Panic, 2018) – who also plays the victim in that first scene – is here toying with the familiar tropes of film noir, and the low budget with which Schadt is operating only allies his work more closely to the genre’s formative era. Still, with its LA setting and colour presentation, this tawdry tale of betrayal and shifting moral lines is definitely noir of a neo– variety. For this is noir set very much in our own times – and the reason that characters here prefer the medium of handwritten messages and in-person visits to making calls and sending texts is not because they inhabit a pre-cellphone period, but rather because they are “paranoid about leaving digital trails.”
If Jonathan Boyd (Robert Ackerman Moss), the cold-blooded killer in the opening sequence, represents evil of a straightforwardly sociopathic variety, with no redeeming features whatsoever, then Liz (Helene Udy), an upright Christian with a keen nose for trouble, is Boyd’s polar opposite and an embodiment of basic good. Yet the two main characters in Toxic Impulses, Liz’s apartment building neighbour Peter Mosley (Benedikt Sebastian) and the mysterious Zemira Atchismith (Olivia Buckle) – who also claims to be a neighbour – fall somewhere in between the extremes instantiated by Liz and Boyd in the film’s ethical landscape. Mosley is a divorcee and an ex-cop – “forced to resign”, he says in noirish narration, his words immediately calling into question the man’s moral makeup. Now a stay-at-home couch potato surrounded by the detritus of cheap snack food and defined by the ‘boredom’ of having nothing to do, Mosley declares: “What I needed more than anything was a sense of purpose” – and his call is answered by a knock on the door, bringing Zemira into his life, as she turns to the one-time police detective for help. She is, she says, being blackmailed by Boyd (with whom she is criminally compromised), and is frightened for her very life. “She had piqued my interest,” Mosley says in voiceover, “And there was just something about her I couldn’t resist.” From the start, Liz is suspicious of Zemira, and warns Mosley not to get involved with her. Yet the trap is set: the chump has already fallen for the femme fatale and, perhaps inevitably, the dictates of noir must be followed to their bitter-tasting end.
In between there will be bank robberies, crooked cops, chases, double-crosses, exploding cars and moral slipperiness, as the ‘toxic impulses’ which Zemira ascribes to Boyd spread infectiously through the neighbourhood. Zemira’s particular poison is heroin – although she will resort to others – and addiction has prevented her from being a good wife, mother or human. Mosley is a tenacious ‘tec whose generosity and good nature make him an easy mark, all too readily seduced into complicity with wrongdoing and worse. Meanwhile Zemira’s ex James (Jay Habre) works in construction, tends a garden, and lovingly looks after his young daughter – marking him as a paragon of virtue working for a better future and hoping to lift Zemira from her vice. Though James and the bookseller Keisha (Sara Elizabeth Ryan), or the two women (Juliet Frew, Jordan Rennert) seated next to Zemira on a plane, are merely adjacent to the film’s darkness, like Mosley they risk at any moment being drawn in and envenomed. Here crime and corruption are catching, and not every fix is salutary.
Full of mannered performances, recurring, reconfigured lines and unexpected transitions from scene to scene, Toxic Impulses is an unfashionably moralising film about choices and consequences. Here perhaps it is ultimately better to stay bored at home than to become entangled in errant adventure – although without Mosley’s fall, two other characters might never be brought together to forge a new future. This is, after all, a karmic universe where, even as those who have broken bad find their transgressions catching up with them in the end, a boring life of good conduct and decency is, in mysterious ways, also rewarded. Yet the careful contradiction here is that viewers too, perhaps also sat on their couch with snacks to watch this film, are themselves longing, however vicariously, for a knock at the door and a walk on the wild side…
strap: Kyle Schadt’s noirish morality tale offsets the poison of corruption and criminality with an antidote of uprightness
© Anton Bitel