While I enjoyed The Loner, I’ll admit that it doesn’t initially have its bearings straight. Writer/Director Daniel Grove opens on an Iranian child being beckoned into martyrdom, but then a tonal shift to 1980s Los Angeles brings about neon-drenched noir settings that some may struggle to interpret. We try to make connections, yet the puzzle is still unclear in its early stages.
Fortunately, as clarity explains itself, a neo-noir-ish, stranger-with-no-name kind of gangster film plays out, exploring an Iranian/Russian underground region of LA that few have witnessed (if it even exists?). Patience is certainly a virtue, but you’ll be paid off in time – just don’t jump to any jumbled conclusions too quickly.
Reza Sixo Safai stars as Behrouz, a former Iranian gangster who finds himself being sucked back into a sleazy underworld crime syndicate. His old boss, Cirrus (Parviz Sayyad), accuses him of stealing merchandise, and threatens his life if the situation isn’t handled appropriately. This endangers Behrouz’s lover, Oksana (Helena Mattsson), and a young boy, Sasha (Gregory Kasyan), which makes his decision all-the-more difficult. Behrouz’s attempt to become a real estate salesman must be put on hold, as he once again finds his world run by violence, obscenity and betrayal.
The above mention of chid martyrs comes from Behrouz’s childhood, when he was set to fight in a war between Iraq and Iran. Kids were disgustingly used as front-lines soldiers, where a glorious afterlife in Paradise was promised in exchange for their mortality. This adds a level of depth to Behrouz, because he was rescued from certain death and taken to America, where Middle-East natives sought free prosperity – yet were greeted by something very different. All the war left Behrouz with was a nasty opium habit and an unpayable debt, which is then manipulated by an America that’s still being run by underground Iranian rulers. Behrouz was promised a new life, but found himself ushered into a different, more manipulative kind of war.
Themes of immigrant welfare, and their general perception of America, are continually hinted at through Grove’s story (co-concocted by Safai). Little digs at gun safety are slipped in as well, like when a henchman starts shooting wildly in the streets. Another tells him he can’t just blast away wherever he pleases, which is met with a simple, “Why! This is America!”
Over and over again, we get an Iranian’s perspective on what America truly offered him, especially considering he was “rescued” by a crime boss. Behrouz was assured a better life, and instead he became a hired gun. Aside from shoot-em-up action, there’s a weighty social analysis here that’s far deeper than gangsters and drugs.
Sexuality also dictates many scenes, from a wig-wearing Russian brothel owner (Evgeny, played by Julian Sands) to everyone’s interest in Behrouz – man or woman. Farid (Dominic Rains), Behrouz’s ex-partner turned enemy, makes continual suggestive passes, most of which revolve around “fucking your eyes out” or something threatening of that nature. All characters wear nail polish (Behrouz pink, Farid black (or dark), and Evgeny yellow), and the neo-noir vibe blends into an electronic pink sunburst that overtakes Behrouz whenever he loads up on opium. The whole thing can seem like a psychedelic perfume commercial at times, but hyper-sexual thrills power some of the film’s most engaging encounters. Dialogue is overt, and the primal nature can sometimes feel a bit brash, but Grove’s tone is set by such depravity. This is an underworld dissection, after all.
As a gripping struggle for survival, The Loner delivers a sleek, sexified thriller that’s purposefully perverse, and 100% unique. We’ve never seen such an LA underworld before, from Iranian poker dens to Russian whore houses run by Flash Gordon wannabes. There’s one inexcusable visual effect, when a character gets plugged in the head, but otherwise, the hits are hard and tension runs a dangerous gamut as Behrouz finally fights for a cause he believes in. Stakes are constantly high, especially when Behrouz brings innocent bystanders into his particular gangster hell.
As an American, my biggest problems with The Loner come from an unappreciative viewpoint whenever Oksana or Behrouz voice their displeasure with immediate surroundings. Their wisdom is undoubtably valid, yet it’s a life never comprehended. But when interrogations heighten, and psychopaths turn deadly, there’s plenty to love about this rave-club shade of action. It’s a typical revenge story told through a vivid outsider’s point of view – one that pleases far more than it disappoints.
The Loner is a hyper-surreal tale of neo-noir revenge, boasting Middle-Eastern influences that unlock new aspects of an age-old genre.
The Loner Review [Tribeca 2016]