A slowly simmering Cain/Abel feud between two brothers searching for their alcoholic father drives the narrative in the drama Sawdust City, which premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival June 19th. Director/writer David Nordstrom’s first feature film channels the Midwestern ennui of Eau Claire, Wisconsin (his hometown) as ex-sailor Pete Church (Carl McLaughlin) and underemployed family man Bob Church (played by Nordstorm) bounce from bar to bar on Thanksgiving Day to find their long-lost Dad.
Nordstorm's acting credits include Little Rock, Short Form Films’ well-received tale of Japanese siblings stranded in Little Rock, Arkansas, and 2004's Trona playing “The Man” lost in the desert. His indie acting experience surely adds to his rich and complex performance as hotheaded brother Bob in Sawdust.
A radio announcer’s mellifluous voice pops up every so often as the brothers drive (and eventually walk) from bar to bar through Eau Claire’s barren streets. The announcer’s flat jokes are a perfect accompaniment to the snow-covered sidewalks, railroad crossings and clapboard houses that double as taverns. The geography of Sawdust City paints a land that is as desolate emotionally as it is physically.
The film has the potential to combine both pathos and humor, as most of the action takes place in bars. Comic relief appears in the brothers’ travels via a loquacious, money-strapped barfly named Gene (Lee Lynch), whose tales of his unseen lumberjack girlfriend provide most of the film’s chuckles.
The father in question is seen only through old photographs as Bob and Pete bicker back and forth about childhood events. As day turns into night, tensions flare between them. The combination of cold weather, too much alcohol, and exposed secrets drives Bob and Pete to their respective boiling points. A long shot of Pete walking along a snowy road near the end of the film exemplifies not only the bleak surroundings, but the stark reality of the brothers’ plight. While Bob alternates between logic and rage, younger brother Pete is an enigma for much of the film. Well-acted and emotionally taut, Sawdust City is a compelling portrait of siblings entangled in a not-so-happy reunion. It’s an ultimately downbeat tale, to say the least, but indie film fans will admire its artistry. Sawdust City is an official selection of the Los Angeles Film Festival.