When we read up on King of Herrings while deciding which films to go see at this year's Phoenix Film Festival, the peg of a "Tom Waits tips-his-hat-to Woody Allen world" pretty much promised an entertaining, artsy ride into grittiness. However, limiting what King of Herrings does to just those two elements would betray what writer, director, and lead actor Eddie Jemison accomplished in his first feature. From Shakespearean dialogue and themes to a cinematography style that many are comparing to that of John Cassavetes, this indie flick is rich with dramatic and comedic elements.
If Seinfeld was a show about nothing, King of Herrings is a movie about nothing. There's no major event that holds the plot together. Rather Jemison expertly explores interpersonal relationships between a group of friends who seem to bond over being society's leftovers more so than sharing any actual camaraderie between them. In fact, between the four men, there are two feuding factions, stemming from the insult of a $9 IOU.
On one end, there's The Professor, who is owed the small amount of money, and Leon, a man who speaks through a electronic voice box after surgery for throat cancer. On the other, there's Ditch, a Napoleonic instigator with a short fuse played by Jemison, and his somewhat loyal friend, Gat.
After a standoff, which included a direct Shakespearean reference when The Professor bit his thumb at Ditch rather than shaking his hand in a local diner, the two groups separate, with The Professor attempting to seduce Ditch's lonely, waifish wife Mary. The feud escalates, and while Mary, who is played by Jemison's wife, seems to be the victim of the whole plot, she's the only one to come out on the better end of it once all is said and done, like Nora in A Doll's House or one of Woody Allen's heroines.
The well-thought out character archetypes and plot progression drew many similarities to famous plays from Tennessee Williams, Shakespeare, and Henrik Ibsen. This is likely due to the effective interplay between the four actors, who grew up together in New Orleans. Their chemistry with each other, as well as with the surrounding landscape, was evident in the film. Jemison also said during the screening's Q&A that the city's run-down areas set the right gritty mood for the story.
While all of the performances merit their own compliments, Wayne Pére's portrayal of Leon stands out above the rest. Alluding to his past as a high school sports hero, Leon is now a tragic character, mute if his electrolarynx or "mic" is taken from him. His eyes tell a subtle story of regret, while his actions are submissive and pet-like. Péré's performance flourished in the situation, with his painfully expressive facial features much like silent film pantomime.
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As far as Shakespeare similarities can be drawn, the movie has elements of both tragedy and comedy. While there's no clear happy ending for any one character, the movie also hinges on Ditch's sister's wedding -- a common tell for a comedy, as well as the outrageous, drunken antics and lewd tirades of the men. However, the malicious treatment of Mary from The Professor and Ditch's possessive, yet indifferent attitude toward her make no clear cut category to place the film.
In the end, King of Herrings is most successful in its analysis of the interaction between men, their morality, and delusional, misguided senses of honor and purpose. If any one point resonates most in the film, it's Ditch's sentiment, which he repeats twice in the film: "The closer they are, the harder they fuck you."