Film Review: Pickings

A bar owner takes on the Michigan mob in this stylized crime thriller about family ties and the persistence of violence.
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Jo Lee-Haywood (Elyse Price) is a mama bear of the first order: Family—brother Boone (Joel Bernard) and her kids—and her home, whose boundaries extend to her Port City, Michigan bar named “Pickings,” are everything to her. Local mob boss Mr. Frank (Matthew DeArmey) sends his tough guys to muscle in, figuring that Jo will cave at the first sign of violence, but he's very, very wrong.

That's the plot in a nutshell—there are complications and revelations, but it comes down to what Jo is willing to endure and dish out to protect her kin, and she's one tough cookie in white cowboy ankle boots.

What writer-director-producer-cinematographer Usher Morgan's Pickings has by the boatload is visual pizzazz of the Sin City variety—from the neon-drenched shadows to live-action images that morph into graphic-novel-style panels and back again, it's dazzling and all the more impressive because it was executed on an incredibly low budget.

What it isn't especially strong on is original characterization. Price's Jo is impressively tough and convincingly wounded, but she's a still a variation on Kill Bill's lethal bride (and by extension, her inspiration, the titular lady of Toshiya Fujita's 1973 Lady Snowblood), a woman who's been hurt one time too many and is not taking any more, ever, from anyone…especially not when her children are involved.

Of Jo's kids, only eldest daughter Scarlet (Katie Vincent) makes much of an impression, but principal bad guy Yaron Urbas—playing thug Sam "Hollywood" Barrone—gets a boost from one of the film's most striking uses of color, or rather the absence thereof: He's always seen in black-and-white, like a film noir heavy, even when everything around him is in full color. Underlying everything is a gorgeously twangy neo-spaghetti-western score. Pickings may not be a genre-changer, but it's handsomely stylish and a cut above the average neo-noir pastiche.

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