Failure! (2023)

Failure! had its world première on Mon 28th Aug at FrightFest

Writer/director Alex Kahuam’s Failure! begins with a text quotation from Mobeen Hakeem: “Protect the people you claim to love. Protect them from a dark end, even if that means protecting them from yourself.”

This cuts right to the heart of the dilemma facing its protagonist James (Ted Raimi), a divorced family man whose business – a plastics factory inherited from his late father, its founder – is slowly going under, hit hard by the financial crisis. Hoping to preserve this legacy for his own adult daughters, even though they have shown no interest in the enterprise, James has accumulated massive debts in his efforts to keep things afloat. The banks are unwilling to extend him further credit, his long-term foreman Michael (John Paul Medrano) is circling in to make James stand by the factory and its workers or else to claim what he perceives as his due, while accountant and investor Alvar (Daniel Kuhlman), even more indebted and desperate than James, is pressuring him to sell the factory on to the mysterious Mr Serge (Merrick McCartha, creepily commanding). 

Meanwhile, James is thinking about the imminent marriage of his daughter Jessica (voiced by Christin Muuli) to Nicolas (Joe Barra), and the future of his younger, level-headed daughter Maria (Melissa Diaz), whose girlfriend he has yet to meet. So James is wondering how to secure his family’s interests, while shielding them from the often shady dealings that the business has required from both his father and himself. Faced with a decision that will affect his own fortunes and his family’s, James is divided within himself, unsure which direction to take – and this division is depicted on screen by his ongoing dialectic with an imaginary, dressing-gowned friend (Noel Douglas Orput) who knows him too well, and serves all at once as his sounding board, his inner voice of reason, his consigliere and his chess opponent. Similarly James’ negotiations on this day, with the fitting for Jessica’s wedding, with his co-workers and colleagues, with the guy (Ernest Cavazos) he secretly hires to clean up his messes, and with the powerful Mr Serge, necessitate that he always be several steps ahead. 

“I’m just living my life as it happens to me,” James tells his alter ego, in words that also reflect the film’s form. For despite having a prologue, three headed chapters and an epilogue, Failure! is shot in a single fluid take from beginning to end, as DP Ernesto Lomeli’s camera sinuously tracks James in real time through his opulent three-storey home and critical day, capturing our conflicted, compromised protagonist’s every chessboard gambit, move and attack in response to what destiny is throwing at him.

It is a format which allows us to duck and weave through unfolding events, always in medias res without ever quite seeing what is coming. It also makes great demands on the cast, with Raimi in particular having to be ‘on’ at all times while shifting through an array of contradictory attitudes and moods: now pleading loser, now loving father, now ‘ambitious motherfucker’, now ‘pillar of the community’, now cold-hearted man of violence, now slick salesman. “This isn’t me,” James will object, “I don’t do this” – but it is and he does, and on this long, challenging day, we will get to see every aspect of this character’s personality, including all the skeletons in his closet. In terms of performance, Jack’s serial failure (!) is Raimi’s triumphant success. 

If James is, as per the Hakeem quote, protecting the people he claims to love, then so too are Alvar and Mr Serge – also loving fathers whose professional and personal lives have become entangled, leading them down questionable paths. Failure! may be an understated, if unpredictable chamber drama, never leaving the confines of Jack’s home – yet within these limits, it is concerned with broader themes of American capital and criminality, and how every well-intentioned effort to build and pass on wealth to the next generation involves a difficult deal with the devil. James may have long since broken bad, but he is also striving, even at this late, crucial stage, to come good, as he tries to find a way of reconciling himself, not just economically but also morally, with (in Mr Serge’s words) “what you were, what you are, what you leave behind.” Like a chess master, James has been planning and preparing his dark endgame way in advance, even if we intuit, rather than see, his final play, implied right from the beginning. 

strap: Alex Kahuam’s single-take chamber piece tracks a father in freefall seeking to redeem his family legacy and maybe himself.

© Anton Bitel