Tonic (2023)

“I’m a fucking pianist, that’s how I make my living,” says Sebastian Poe (Billy Blair) near the beginning of writer/director Derek Presley’s Tonic. “I got these fingers, that’s it.”

In mentioning his ‘fingers’, Sebastian is unconsciously alluding to James Toback’s Fingers (1978) which, like Jacques Audiard’s remake The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) and also François Truffaut’s Shoot The Piano Player (1960) and Tonic itself, confounds lofty artistic aspirations and gutter-level realities as it follows a skilled pianist who gets his hands dirty in criminal undertakings.

Sebastian is a jobbing jazz musician, who is looking after his cancer-riddled sister Elise (Lori Petty) while secretly popping some of her pills himself – and who now owes a small fortune to Terry (Jason Coviello), the corrupt cop who has been supplying the drugs. Now Terry has come to collect, but with Sebastian down on his luck and out of cash, the policeman makes an indecent proposal: all Sebastian’s debts will be cleared if that very night he carries out a hit job on a named target. Otherwise, Sebastian, and Elise too, will get what is coming to them.

With a threat hanging over not only his own but also his sister’s life, Sebastian reluctantly agrees to the job – but though an addict, a low-life and a selfish bum, Sebastian is hardly killer material, and over this one long dark night on the streets of Deep Ellum, Dallas, this piano player will find himself strained, wracked and tested by a maybe moral universe where he needs one last time to find not only his proper rhythm and harmony, but also his lost soul.


On this overnight odyssey which plays like a Texan rejoinder to Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), Sebastian will repeatedly cross paths with a club owner (Draper Wynston), an elderly dog walker (Richard Riehle), a drug dealer (Ed Westwick), a police officer (Robert Johnson), a call girl (Ammie Masterson) and the piano-playing nemesis (Vernon Davis) who seems to beat Sebastian to every club slot. Everything will go wrong for our grizzled, increasingly dishevelled protagonist as he has several paid gigs cancelled on him, loses his wallet, is (twice) bloodily punched in the nose, runs out of pills, is nearly arrested, and steals, lies and much, much worse. Yet at the same time, money will providentially materialise when he most needs it; in trying to impress a nightclub pickup, he will make up a heroic narrative to explain his broken nose, only to become, shortly afterwards, precisely the hero he had invented; and he will repeatedly, for all his scuzziness and low motives, make noble sacrifices to look after his beloved sister.

In other words, the mean streets through which Sebastian is travelling come with a karmic nature, as what goes around also comes around. “This whole world is sick,” he will tell the hooker Jane, declaring his entire philosophy. “I think the world is a beautiful place,” Jane will counter, “filled with beautiful souls who get confused.” Tonic will find a middle path through this dualism, much as Jane works under the alias Mindy and deftly manages to switch between her professional and personal lives. Indeed she is one of several characters here, along with Fletch/Stanley and Paolo/Paul (Luke Barnett), who unify two discrete identities in a single person – and Sebastian too is all at once hero and villain, loser and winner, while his final scene represents both his peak and his fall. 


If Tonic is a neo-noir, tracing the not-so-innocent Sebastian’s descent through various Deep Ellum dive bars and domiciles into darkness, it also boasts beautiful Hopper-esque lighting, right from its opening credits figured as neon signs on a club wall, through to some very stylised reds and blues and yellows which filter all the nighthawks in this shadowy netherworld. Presley’s film is very much focused on sickness and disease, both literal (Elise’s) and metaphorical (Sebastian’s, the city’s), but its very title (in fact the name of a bar where Sebastian likes to perform) also points to the possibility of healing and cure – much as Jane, an ex-nurse, tends to at least the physical injuries that scar Sebastian. Likewise the film may have a nocturnal setting, but ends, somewhat ambivalently, with the dawn of a new day. Here death must come to everyone eventually – but it is the music that people make in their allotted time that really counts. 

strap: Derek Presley’s stylish Deep Ellum-set neo-noir follows a musician on a long dark night of the soul as he contemplates murder

© Anton Bitel