SXSW Review – The Archer
The Archer (2017) is a competent B-movie thriller that has big aspirations on its mind, even though its ambitions are a tad too far for its reach. Penned by Casey Schroen and directed by Valerie Weiss, the film tells of a young woman trapped by legal corruption and misogynistic authority figures. We’re told that this is based on a true story, how a few years ago some local level court judges were found to have taken millions in kickbacks for sending young people to for-profit correctional facilities. These facilities were run like torture houses, where kids (who were sentenced for minor infractions) were beaten down and treated like animals.
It’s a noble motivation for Weiss and the rest of the production: to reveal the hidden wrongs of greedy people in positions of power. However, coming out of The Archer, my mind was less focused on the corruption of the penal system and more on the thriller aspects of the narrative. There’s no mistaking that setting the film in a correctional facility – one for all girls, no less – will call to mind the Women-In-Prison exploitation pictures of yesteryear. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. But in this instance there’s an imbalance of tone. I was never quite sure what the true intention was. By throwing so many different elements into the pot, the overall effect seemed to dissipate.
Lauren (Bailey Noble) is a high school archer who just recently won her most recent competition. However, her success is quickly taken from her when her teammate’s abusive boyfriend comes knocking. In an act of self-defense, Lauren promptly beats the oaf to a pulp, but that’s not how the court sees it. With lack of evidence and her teammate nowhere to be found to provide testimony, Lauren is convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to one year at Paradise Ridge, a correctional facility just outside the city limits. The facility is run by Bob (Bill Sage), a drill sergeant who can barely hide his sexist tendencies, as well his pervert son Michael (Michael Grant Terry) who enjoys controlling the female population with sadistic glee. But there are good people there too, such as Rebecca (Jeanine Mason), a female prisoner whom Lauren learns has tried to escape numerous times.
The themes Weiss and her team are going for are not subtle. We have a group of marginalized people (in this case, young women), demoralized by a power structure run by white males. Lauren’s struggle to fight back against the system, escape the prison, and expose the truth of the facility is an empowerment story that can be admired. Is it a failing of Weiss and Schroen to paint their characters with such stark contrast in morality? All of the men here are villainous scumbags with no redeeming qualities. Would it have been more thought provoking if the characters were portrayed more in shades of gray?
Who knows? Weiss and Schroen mark their positions in the sand and stick with it. Luckily, they cast a fine actress to play Lauren. Bailey Noble is very good in her role as Lauren, displaying a wide range of emotions: from fear and confusion of being sent to the facility, to her anger and persistence to escape. She’s resourceful and smart, but Weiss’ direction and Schroen’s writing give her moments of vulnerability as well. Lauren is a well-realized character, she feels authentic.
But it’s the story that’s the shortcoming of The Archer. As mentioned earlier, there’s a trace of exploitation going on here. In what is essentially a thriller, there’s a strange, uncomfortable feeling watching the characters go through their struggles. The corruption of the system took a backseat to the visceral anguish that the girls went through. Was this supposed to come off as entertainment? Was this supposed to unnerve us to the harsh realities of the world? Even then, the film wasn’t as shocking as I think it was trying to be. What was supposed to be a gut punch was instead a gentle nudge. The action sequences were fine, although not particularly memorable. An unfortunate decision was to make Lauren’s weapon of choice a bow and arrow. Given that much of the action takes place in the wilderness, the comparisons to The Hunger Games franchise will almost be certain. There’s also the unfortunate inclusion of a lesbian subplot as well. In Lauren’s case there just isn’t much time to think about love when you’re trying to escape a bunch of nut jobs.
The Archer is completely passable – it’s only when you start to dig deeper that the loose ends start to reveal themselves. Bailey Noble is good as a lead actress, and does most of the heavy lifting through her screen presence alone. As a low budget crime thriller, it’s not bad – to expect anything more might be pushing it.