There’s a peculiar inconsistency in the tone of A Bag Of Hammers. It starts out as a snide, whimsical buddy comedy, lulling audiences into a false sense of alt-bromance cleverness, before abruptly dropping the bottom out and letting the dirty real world force its way in. In some ways, it’s refreshing and keeps you on your toes. On the other hand, the shift are so total and, at times, harsh, that it makes their incongruity stick out a little too much.
Let’s start at the beginning. A Bag Of Hammers, directed by Brian Crano in his first full-length film, is about two winsome slackers and small-time con artists — Ben (Jason Ritter) and Alan (Jake Sandvig). They’re good-natured, generally sweet guys who spend their days posing as valets at funerals, and the stealing the cars. The rest of their time is spent hanging out with their reprobate friend who fences the cars for them, Marty (Todd Luiso), and loitering in the diner where Alan’s sister Mel (Rebecca Hall) works as a waitress. Ben and Alan are decidedly downtrodden at their roots, making enough to get them a ramshackle but cozy house, as well as the ire of Alan’s sister. The film hints early on at a darker past for both of them, but we get so swept up in their breezy wit and their lifestyles as affable scumbags that you barely give it a moment’s notice.
Their lives quickly intersect with Lynette (Carrie Preston) and her son Kelsey (Chandler Canterbury), when they rent the house next door. Lynette’s a tired, angry, frustrated unemployed single mom, and Kelsey’s suffers through the typical movie stereotypes inflicted on new kids — he’s a quiet, introverted misfit who gets picked on. However, Ben and Alan take a shine to him, and Mel begins to mother-hen her way into his life, which results in a rather unpleasant glimpse into Kelsey and Lynette’s life of turmoil, neglect, and ultimately despair.
And that, essentially, is where shit gets real. There’s a turning point in the film where the stark realities of poverty and broken families smashes through the shell of gentle quirky humor, and Alan and Ben find themselves at odds, torn between caring for Kelsey and not endangering the fragile world they’ve constructed for themselves. It’s full of drama and tragedy and sadness, and it works… if it wasn’t for the comedic origins. Therein lies the problem with A Bag Of Hammers — it’s a very good movie. But at times it feels like it’s two very good movies haphazardly spliced together. There are times when the tonal shifts are so sudden that it feels like a slap to the face than a change in pace, and I suspect some will find that off-putting.
What salvages it regardless are some excellent performances. Ritter and Sandvig are both wonderful in their comedic portions of the film, playing off of each other and selling the audience on their rapport quite well. Theirs is the type of friendship/brotherhood that’s forged through a ragged climb up from life’s basement, and while their larcenous chicanery is enjoyable, it’s when the film puts on its serious face that you can see their skill on full display. Rebecca Hall’s Mel is yet another example of how phenomenal and actress she is, whether she’s rolling her eyes in familial frustration at her wayward brother, or trembling in motherly concern for Kelsey. Preston’s Lynette captures that desperate, haggard broke single mom thing, but the film doesn’t pull its punches with her — there’s little obvious gold in that heart, and she’s a surprisingly unlikeable character (and I mean that in a good way). Meanwhile, Canterbury is a serviceable child actor, who handles a fairly heavy dramatic load with relative ease.
A Bag Of Hammers presents an odd conundrum. It’s one of those films that I liked overall, but it’s glaring dichotomies never quite gelled, creating a rift through the film’s core that was difficult to reconcile. It’s whimsy is a bit too whimsical given its eventual emotional downturn. The third act feels rushed and the ending(s) are a little tiresome after a while. And yet… it’s so affecting, and its cast is so engaging, that I couldn’t help but find myself won over by it.