Public Access

One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With Sundance in full swing, we’re looking back at some of the best directorial debuts that premiered at the festival.

Public Access (1993)

“What’s wrong with Brewster?” That deceptively simple question, spoken at the start of a Podunk public access TV show, kicks off the drama in Public Access, and also kicked off the careers of director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. The film premiered at Sundance and won the Grand Jury Prize, yet failed to secure distribution, an event that would be almost unheard of nowadays. (Recent Grand Jury winners include Fruitvale Station, Whiplash, and Me And Earl And The Dying Girl.) But although it took awhile for the movie to make its way to the public, it delivered both Singer and McQuarrie to Hollywood, helping secure them a deal to make The Usual Suspects. Subsequently, they’ve individually taken the reins of two of the biggest film franchises in existence, Singer with his X-Men series and McQuarrie with the latter films of the Tom Cruise delivery system known as the Mission: Impossible series. (McQuarrie also wrote and directed Cruise’s Jack Reacher, but they can’t all be winners.)

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Public Access is more interesting as a crucible for the ideas and styles both men would subsequently go on to develop in more impressive ways, though it has an oddball appeal in its own right. Filmed with the gauzy look of a made-for-TV movie using subpar camera equipment, the story is largely oblique: A mysterious man named Whiley Pritcher (Ron Marquette, whose suicide the following year has spawned a bizarre conspiracy of murder his kids post about on his IMDB page) strolls into the small rural town of Brewster, quietly rents a room, and buys himself a weekly Sunday night time slot on the local public access TV station for a show he calls Our Town. He sits, well-dressed and with only a phone for set dressing, and asks one question: “What’s wrong with Brewster?” From there, the movie slowly peels back layers, elliptically becoming a parable about the media, political corruption, and the way people’s attention can be diverted from important issues with petty grievances.

Put diplomatically, the plot is a bit of a mess. McQuarrie’s fascination with stories upon stories, mysterious conspiracies, and protagonists keeping giant secrets are all on display, but without any of the strong characterization or narrative tightness such ambitious concepts demand. It’s fascinating in a student-art-film way, striving for profundity that is largely unearned. And the look of the film is often generic and flat, as though Singer didn’t yet have the know-how to make the most of his limited budget. Despite these obvious flaws, the strengths of both artists are visible. In particular, Singer’s assured direction conveys a sustained mood of unease that’s almost Lynchian in its manipulation of folksy imagery into menacing mystery. He repeatedly turns homespun tableaus of small-town Americana into powder kegs of tension, only sparingly allowing them to explode into dramatic release. With little to no explanation of who Whiley Pritcher is, what he wants, or why he’s there, Singer makes the blank slate of a protagonist into a figure of almost supernatural charisma, threatening and neutered in equal measure, thanks to camera work that throws even Pritcher’s smallest actions into question.

It’s the definition of a calling-card film: Singer and McQuarrie had a surfeit of great ideas and talent, but hadn’t yet figured out how to harness them into a cohesive whole. They would go on to prove themselves many times over, but here, they’re still chasing their vision of a mystery both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. Public Access is more compelling in hindsight than as a stand-alone work of art.

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Availability: Public Access is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library.