Examining the credits of this film, Keith Sutliff’s impressive effort becomes apparent as he worked as the writer, director, producer, production designer, art director, and lead actor. Undertaking all of these responsibilities to bring together a vision for this project took incredible dedication, commitment, and patience. Sutliff undoubtedly poured his heart and soul into this film. However, despite this notable exertion from Sutliff, The Refuge falls prey to its fair share of detractive qualities.
The story follows the ventures of criminal getaway driver (and hitman) Markus Hunter (Keith Sutliff) and displays various aspects of both his personal and professional life. These different perspectives provide an intriguing nuance to his character and the motivations which drive him. On the one hand, he is involved in violent crime and various other highly illegal activities. Yet, on the other side of things, Hunter is lonely and depressed, and there are heavy implications that he is also an alcoholic. His closest friend, Staci (Reine Swart), is his only true emotional human connection. As more light is shed on certain occurrences within the story, the audience understands that Staci is the reason that Hunter commits these crimes. Hunter feels that the money gained from these jobs is the only true route to providing what he needs for Staci. Although this is a very clichéd motivation that we have seen countless times in other similar crime thrillers, it is fairly effective in this narrative. The audience develops at least a certain level of sympathy for the main protagonist, although it is not extraordinarily deep in any sense.
Additionally, the viewer is given a glimpse into the inspirations of other criminals in the story. There are those with very similar ambitions compared to Markus Hunter, such as Watts Riley (Matthew Webb), who is buried in debt and concerned with caring for his family. Tragically, he consistently digs a deeper hole for himself. Every time he makes a step in the right direction, he relapses like an addict and asks for a favor from another figure in the crime underworld. This is a regrettable cycle with which Riley continually struggles. In the same sense that the audience develops a degree of understanding for Hunter’s actions, there is a similar comprehension of Riley’s actions. Perhaps this connection is not quite as deep with Riley in relation to Hunter, but it is still present nonetheless.
While Markus Hunter is the most compelling character in the film, the methods that are enacted to develop this intrigue grow very stale and repetitive. A large portion of the film is B-roll footage following Hunter as he drives around in his car, scouting out locations and strategies for his next job. The first use of this type of scene is unique and fresh, giving the audience a look into the ins and outs of Hunter’s occupation. He is shown as meticulous, organized, and well-prepared. He takes his work seriously and goes to great lengths to make sure each job goes over without a hitch. However, the frequent recycling of this type of segment becomes very mundane and redundant. It feels like an overused gimmick. Footage of Hunter driving in his car and of him sitting at a desk drinking alone, account for more than 50% of the entire film. There is hardly anything additional or supplementary added to these clips to progress his character arc in any satisfying way. The impact of these scenes rapidly plateaus after the initial introduction.
Other elements of the story are also a bit messy and convoluted. There are multiple characters shoehorned into the equation at various points in the narrative, each feeling out of place and without purpose. Various criminal groups and leaders are injected into the narrative at strange moments and in incoherent fashions. Their impact on the eventual outcome is hazy and imprecise. The central plot revolves around Markus Hunter’s intertwinement with a mob conflict of sorts, as rival factions are plotting hits and heists against one another. He is caught in the middle of the warring sides, with no true allegiances, only focused on making money and staying alive. If executed efficiently, this could make for a very fascinating narrative. Witnessing a man maneuvering his way out of the chaos of an organized crime crossfire sounds entertaining enough. Yet, the antagonists and villains of the story are very weakly developed, stereotypical, and vaguely depicted. They are simply the “bad guys,” with no apparent motivations other than wealth and power. Of course, there is a possibility that there is something deeper to their characters, similarly to Hunter and Watts Riley, but there is nothing even resembling a hint to their ambitions and motives. They are portrayed in the flattest, most one-dimensional manner possible.
Looking to the technical and mechanical aspects of the film, there are fortunately a couple of stimulating qualities that have somewhat of a positive impact. The movie was filmed on location in Los Angeles, with some effective scene-setting wide shots of the city at night showing off its twinkling lights and grand skyscrapers. In the more intimate scenes with Markus Hunter driving in his car or sitting alone in his apartment, dynamic lighting techniques and the use of shadows create an aura of mystery and intrigue. The effective musical score from Federico Vaona and sound design by Scott Marshall and Maoma further characterize this tone and mood with sounds that complement the city atmosphere and gritty storyline. Still, the editing transitions often feel disjointed and muddled. The screenwriting is just as much to blame for this issue, with the main problem being the odd introduction of characters and situations that serve an unclear purpose to the story. Parts of the narrative that should significantly complement and supplement one another feel disconnected and incohesive.
In spite of its many problems that cannot be overlooked, The Refuge is still a respectable effort from Keith Sutliff, who is responsible for all three roles – director, writer, and editor – in the project. It is apparent that the load of juggling each task in accordance with one another proved to be too overwhelming. The fact that he undertook multiple crucial positions on the project, and managed to produce a film remotely watchable should be commended. Yet, this in no way absolves the final product from its numerous complications. The moderately compelling premise of the story was unfortunately overshadowed by its overall poor execution.
*This review was originally published by Elements of Madness on June 27th, 2019, at https://elementsofmadness.com/2019/06/27/the-refuge/. *