A young man sits in his living room, in a large, inviting house that, as we'll learn, is located in the small town of Perry, Iowa. He practices a quiet melody on his guitar, occasionally glancing at his handwritten sheet music for a song titled "Last Looks." It's a sunny day in late afternoon, and both the man and his surroundings exude an air of utter, unalterable calm, a feeling only briefly disrupted by the sound of a plane passing overhead. Well, that and the faraway screaming.
So begins Impulse, the latest offering by filmmakers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods of the Bettendorf-based (and, now, also Los Angeles-based) production company Bluebox Limited. And over the span of a compact 16-and-a-half minutes, Beck and Woods - both of whom are in their mid-20s - again demonstrate the rather intimidating gifts for screen composition and cinematic nuance that have made the duo's previous works, particularly their 2006 neo-Western The Bride Wore Blood, such impressive achievements. Impulse may be short, but as an example of engaging, evocative, and ultimately haunting storytelling, it's very, very sweet.
It's also, barring the music and designer Mac Smith's sound effects, very, very quiet. I might have already written more words for this article that you'd find in the entirely of Impulse's scripted dialogue. (Beck and Woods share credit as the film's writers, directors, and producers.) As we all know, though, a picture is worth a thousand words, and some of the sequences pictured here by Beck and Woods are worth a lot more than that; the moviemakers smartly understand the economy - and, for audiences, the intense thrill - of letting visual and aural clues drive their narrative. Until the film's final image, we're never entirely certain about where Impulse's threat is coming from. But it doesn't take much more than the sight of a kid spray-painting "To Hell and Back" on a church exterior, or the sounds of unseen helicopters zipping over a deserted Main Street, to glean that something very bad is happening in Perry, and quite possibly the world, and that the situation is quickly getting worse.
To be sure, this is readily apparent to our guitar-playing protagonist David (played with ease and confidence by former Malcolm in the Middle co-star Christopher Masterson), who spends the film making desperate attempts to escape the town. We're told neither what he's escaping from nor to where, but Beck and Woods, from the start, pepper David's predicament with suggestive, insidious hints: warning sirens blaring on a cloudless day; a collection of lit candles arranged in the shape of a cross; a well-dressed businessman (James Serpento) apologetically hijacking David's car and muttering, "We're all fucked anyway, right?"; a shotgun-wielding grandfather (Michael Kennedy) taking deliberate aim at a skateboard-riding relative. Propelled by Corey Wallace's insistent, nerve-racking score, Beck's and Woods' early scenes of small-town panic all but vibrate with tension and foreboding, and those sensations are intensified by our continued haziness about what, exactly, the source of the danger is. Terrorists? Disease? Zombies? (In an enjoyable newscast cameo, KWQC-TV6's Gary Metivier tells viewers that their one hope for surviving the threat is to "get to the quarry.") It's the end of the world as we know it in Impulse, and based on the on-screen evidence, no one feels fine.
Yet gradually, almost without your being aware of it, the mood of the film subtly shifts, and what began as a paranoid, end-of-days freak-out à la Steven Soderbegh's Contagion morphs into a hushed, somewhat elegiacal plea for the comforts of simplicity and normalcy - for peace. Through much of Impulse, David's fanatical insistence on bringing a guitar, any guitar, along on his trek seems vaguely comedic, a symbolic representation of the scruffily bearded, chapeau-wearing young man's hipster cred. (Although, as a prop, the musical instrument is at least well-used in one brilliantly, hilariously conceived shocker involving a speeding ambulance.) By the time Beck and Woods get to their climactic scene, however, you realize that the whole movie, in its way, has actually been about the guitar - or at least about the collective need, the impulse, behind why we make music in the first place. Without at all skimping on the pleasures of a tightly constructed short thriller (and Andrew M. Davis' photography and Russell Andrew's editing are particularly fine), the Bluebox filmmakers, here, have crafted an entertainment of surprising elegance and profundity. The film asks, "What do you want to take from this life? And where do you want to be when it ends?" I'm not sure I'm ready to answer that first question, but if life ends while watching a work as sharply rendered and inspiring as Impulse, that might be all right with me.
Impulse was released on iTunes on October 27; for more information on the film, visit BlueboxLimited.com.