Flight of the Cardinal

Waterbearer Films, 2010

Robert Gaston

Ross Beschler,
David J. Bonner,
Clare Bowerman, Jeremy Marr Williams,
Liz Douglas,
Z. Joseph Guice

Unrated, 87 minutes

Mind Games
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, February, 2012

"Life cannot go on without the mutual devouring of organisms"
-Ernest Becker

The above quote from noted anthropologist Ernest Becker raises the curtain on Flight Of The Cardinal, a rather nifty thriller written and directed by Robert Gaston (OpenCam, 2 Minutes Later).  The setting is a lodge in the middle of nowhere. A group of friends are stuck there because of an impending storm. They find themselves at the mercy of a charismatic sociopath who plays them against each other while he secretly plans to take over the proprietor's identity.

flight of the cardiunalGrady Wilson (Ross Beschler) is a failed actor who, in an attempt to re-invent himself, has purchased the Blue Waters Mountain Lodge in North Carolina’s Smokey Mountains. Grady is bipolar and taking prescription meds to combat his depression. Living out in the sticks has made him very lonely and he is looking forward to a weekend with his old friends.

flight of the cardinalThe guests arrive, feeling trepidation. Karen (Clare Bowerman) was Grady's agent and Rye (Jeremy Marr Williams) is her beau. Matthew Montgomery, perhaps the hardest working actor in queer film, plays Andy, the host's estranged boyfriend. Each had to live through Grady's failed suicide attempt and they look for signs that he might be losing it again. Matters aren't helped when Grady realizes that Andy hasn't come to visit; he's there to break up with him. His fragile health will be compromised by a basketload of baggage and betrayals that will explode over the course of the weekend.

flight of the cardinalThis tension is exploited by a young, homeless drifter named Beetle Hobbs (David J. Bonner). Grady buys pot from the kid. Beetle asks if he can work in the lodge over the weekend in exchange for a day's pay with room & board. Grady feels sorry for him and agrees. Big mistake. Beetle has his own agenda. Flight of the Cardinal opens with a bravura sequence in which a first person camera (representing Beetle's point of view) prowls through the lodge. A split screen shows Beetle's invasion while Grady is jogging. The intrusion seems playful at first: a hand inserts a piece on an unfinished jigsaw puzzle and scatters the balls on a billiard table. But then his actions become more malicious. Beetle pries into personal files on Grady's computer and reads the profiles of the upcoming guests. And then, just so we know this kid is not to be trusted, we watch him switch Grady's depression medicine with different pills, identical in color. This act of pure evil actually creeped me out.
flight of the cardinalBeetle wheedles his way into everyone's good graces and no one suspects his motives. "With your Southern charm," Karen tells him, "and your looks, I'll bet you're a handful." Truer words were never spoken. As tensions in the lodge escalate, Beetle is always around a corner listening to everything that is said and then using it to his advantage later. As Grady unknowingly suffers withdrawal from his antidepressants, he becomes irritable, paranoid and finally violent. Beetle, like Shakespeare's Iago, whispers poison into his, and everybody else's, ears. He tells the guests that they are being watched on the surveillance cameras that are all over the lodge. The previous maid quit for that very reason, he "reluctantly" confesses, and then adds that he has suspected for some time now that Grady might be losing his mind.
flight of the cardinalFlight of the Cardinal is actually a quite satisfying thriller. This one is psychological and doesn't go for cheap shocks or thrills. The suspense builds slowly; it is subtle… like a film by Hitchcock or Polanski. There is humor at the right moments too. Beetle plays the tease with Andy (hell, he walks out of his room stark naked in front of him). Moments later, he invites Andy into his room to smoke a joint, pumps him for information about Grady and then backs off when Andy touches his leg. It is a funny scene but, the next day, Beetle tells Grady that Andy tried to rape him. This leads to a confrontation scene that is almost comical ("Oh please, he practically waved it in my face!") until Grady tries to strangle his ex. Humor and suspense blend when Grady finally figures out what is going on and plays a few of the same mind games on his tormenter.
flight of the cardinal
The acting by all is exceptional. Before he really shows his true colors at the end, Bonner nicely underplays Beetle as the kind of villain you love to hate. He's cute in a dorky sort of way, and socially inept, and everyone buys his act. The cinematography is superb and the cabin's surveillance cameras are used to good effect as well.  The moving camera will recall Kubrick's The Shining, as will the lodge setting (though perhaps not on quite as grand a scale).  Distorted voices on the soundtrack and off-kilter camera angles are used sparingly to illustrate Grady's downward spiral as the meds leave his system. The soundtrack is understated, consisting mostly of chimes and percussion to create mood, while jazz-tinged for the lighter moments. The conclusion is a little clumsy compared to what came before but, to the movie's credit, it doesn't descend into cheesy horror flick violence and pointless gratuitous gore. While it might not end with a bang, at least there is no Jason or Freddy that keeps coming back for more. Unlike similar genre films, there is surprisingly not much in the way of a sex for a change. 
flight of the cardinalI've written favorably about Robert Gaston's previous feature films - both guilty pleasures - OpenCam and 2 Minutes Later. Each are slickly directed light thrillers, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, but this one is a quantum leap forward for the writer/director. Part of the fun of reviewing is watching how filmmakers develop over the years. In Open Cam (2005), a serial killer murders young men on an internet chatroom's webcam and a hunky young artist's boyfriends and tricks keep turning up dead. It was often amusing and featured lots of sex with a few dramatic peaks thrown in for good measure. 2 Minutes Later (2007)  featured a lesbian private eye and femme fatale extraordinaire who investigated the disappearance of a famous photographer while, meanwhile, his twin brother has assumed his identity.
flight of the cardinalWhile reviewing 2 Minutes Later, I assumed that it wasn't meant to be taken seriously. As evidence I cited the horribly choreographed shoot-out, scored to music that sounded almost like a bad techno version of Shaft, with the shooters running aimlessly out in the open and, of course, missing every shot. But I was also very impressed by the flashbacks of the murdered photographer at work. One scene in particular has stuck with me and that was when the photographer humiliated a scruffy model by cutting off his long hair to get the angry shots he wanted. I thought there was another film, hidden in this one, wanting to come out.
flight of the cardinal pixIn Flight Of The Cardinal, scenes like that one dominate the film. I'm not saying that the movie is flawless but Gaston's writing and directing has matured at amazing levels. I watched this film with low expectations and was pleasantly surprised. The mind games recall the old 1944 classic, Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman, except this time the plot to drive the protagonist mad involves pharmaceuticals. (More precisely, the deprivation of said prescription drugs.) It is a very plausible premise which makes the film all the creepier. Flight Of The Cardinal is actually a thinking person's thriller. 

flight of the cardinalThere was a line of dialogue around the middle of the film that echoed the quote that began it. Beetle has asked Karen how she got to be such a successful agent and she tells him that "To win big, someone has to lose big." If one line could sum up the film, that one was it. Each character has their own personal baggage, each has something to hide, and that adds good meat to the script's bones. This one's a keeper.


More On Robert Gaston:
2 Minutes Later

Matthew Montgomery also appears i:n
Long Term Relationship
Back Soon
Pornography: A Thriller


Liz Douglas also appears in:
2 Minutes Later