Aldis (Eric Ladin) is a thirty-something painter living in Los Angeles. He’s plagued with repressed anger and low self-esteem, stemming from his lackluster artistic success, snobbish friends, cutthroat competition, and troubled childhood. Aldis soon befriends an affluent, much older patron named Joanne (Betsy Randle), who devotes herself to becoming his benefactor, his surrogate mother figure, and his new lover simultaneously.
She uses Aldis as a personal project to reckon with her traumatic past, growing increasingly obsessive and manipulative. Aldis, an unintelligent sap, ignores red flags as Joanne essentially hijacks his life. Is he willing to cut her off and risk squandering his chance at fame?
Although this plot is ripe with possibility, Painter doesn’t take enough risks to stand out, turning a potentially compelling psychological battle into a predictable thriller with nothing particularly noteworthy to say.
Our protagonist, first and foremost, lacks a colorful personality to latch onto. He stays a blank slate during most of the film, rarely questioning his actions or Joanne’s controlling intent. Indeed, Aldis lives life in a halfhearted fashion, unsatisfied creatively and personally, which builds empathy but isn’t especially interesting to watch, especially near the beginning.
Aldis’s muted characterization, combined with dialogue that’s often an extreme underreaction to what’s happening, renders him a sleepily boring main character until the final act. He’s portrayed as a pawn to advance Joanne’s schemes more so than a full-bodied human being. His “bond” with Joanne escalates way too quickly, and Grant fails to capitalize on why they’re drawn to each other in the first place, or what keeps them together as the proceedings spiral out of control. Ladin gives a valiant effort with his performance, but isn’t provided much to work with for a majority of the film’s runtime.
Joanne is entertaining, on the other hand, largely because of Randle’s scene-stealing bravado, even though she doesn’t encounter notable opposition in her plan until further down the road. Her assertive, in-your-face personality remains enjoyable throughout, especially when Grant’s script allows her to go off the rails. She’s primarily motivated by grief and ego, and Randle makes the most of her dialogue.
Unfortunately, Painter seems content with bringing up thought-provoking subjects without giving them room to breathe.
This lack of focus could have been rectified with sharper editing. Grant spends far too much time with one-note, sometimes offensive side characters serving minimal purpose to the plot. He spends far less time exploring Aldis and Joanne’s contradictions, who they are as people, and what their relationship entails for Aldis’s future — frequently relegating plot revelations to exposition dumps and prizing simplistic resolutions over ambiguity. As a result, Painter’s pacing is quite uneven, floundering when it should have been suspenseful, and undercutting the plot’s opportunity to transcend genre trappings and provide a unique spin on the thriller formula.
Despite all these criticisms, however, Painter is still an entertaining watch, largely due to Grant’s assured filmmaking. The film is unquestionably effective at establishing a sense of place— whether unfolding in a blindingly bright art gallery, or Joanne’s seemingly haunted mansion — and Grant allows viewers to soak in the environment. Additionally, Painter’s last act is considerably more engaging than the previous two, finally forcing Aldis to confront Joanne on a meaningful level, in a suitably crazy set of circumstances. The thumping original score also sets the tone well, tapping into a wild streak that the film would have benefited from committing to consistently.
Well-acted with strong production value, yet failing to truly delve into the relationship at its core, Painter offers an adequate end product that could have used another coat.
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Painter proves solid enough on its own merits, but feels overstuffed and lacks surprise.
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