Published: March 2, 2011
Directed by Matthew Porterfield
Opens March 4 at the Charles Theater
A young man, Cory, is dead from a drug overdose—and in a few days there will be a funeral followed by a wake. This is, in essence, the story of Putty Hill, the burrowing, quietly devastating second feature from Baltimore director Matthew Porterfield. But Putty Hill is so much more than its broad narrative. It’s instead about people and place—the friends, family, and “other” that surrounded/surround Cory, and how a group of people experiencing the world through this lens of a person comes together in a lattice that gives meaning where it might have been lost.
The net result is emotionally drowning, but there is nothing manipulative or heavy-handed about Putty Hill. We’re just given scenes, a long train of them following an assortment of characters: Cory’s brother, sister, cousin, a shady acquaintance, friends, and so forth. The scenes generally stand alone save for this larger connection to Cory, whom we never meet: teenagers walking in the forest, a paintball game, a taxi ride, a skatepark, many living rooms—all of it generally centered around the Northeast Baltimore presuburbs in that classic Baltimore summertime when everything from tree leaves to skin feels wet with perspiration.
Porterfield used non-actors for Putty Hill, many if not most Northeast Baltimore residents, and it’s a choice that feels integral to the movie’s purpose. There was no script, per se; people were frequently just asked to react to things. Adding to this sort of faux documentary feel are interviews between the director offscreen and the film’s characters. They answer questions such as, “Where do you think we go after we die?” but, more so, just matter-of-fact queries that reveal a bit about the characters and their relationships to Cory. It’s a device without much precedent—Porterfield cites Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Fémimin but that’s just a taste—and how naturally and un-self-consciously it works is remarkable.
Character by character, relationship by relationship, the movie builds to an eventual wake where Putty Hill’s calculus becomes quite clear. Cory was ostensibly a fuck-up and a junky and that’s one story, the easy one. The harder one is the one Porterfield tells, the one about those ethereal connections we all have with each other, which, no matter how hard we might try to burn them down, persist. The result is an astounding picture of a community, and simply one of the best Baltimore films there is.
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