“I don’t live in a world of maybes. I live in Texas.” This is a line from “Two Step”, Alex R. Johnson’s Lone Star thriller, and it might sound ominous, a harbinger of an intentionally over-the-top Deep In The Heart Of Texas potboiler where everyone struts around not like a character but a ten-gallon hat wearing caricature. And yet, that line is merely an outlier, less an evocation of what “Two Step” does than what it doesn’t do. This isn’t a film set in Texas so much as it is set in the Everyday. Though its locations occasionally encompass Austin institutions, it is more content to confine its settings to non-descript ranch homes and corner store gas stations. This plain atmosphere grounds the film’s narrative, one in which its requisite twists and turns feel less spectacular than unremarkable, bad ideas only desperate men, not arch-villains, could conjure.
Johnson’s wind-up is incredibly patient, introducing three disparate characters by gracefully laying out their respective situations and then gradually bringing them together in ways that aren’t so much cosmic as born of greed and willful naivety. James (Skyy Moore) is an aimless college dropout, his parents dead from a car crash and his caretaker grandma passing away as the film opens. This might mark his character as a reckless recluse but Webb plays him more as an aimless introvert, understandably withdrawn into himself on account of so much hardship at such a young age, unequipped in real world delicacies, all of which makes his questionable actions ring true. When he reaches out to middle-aged Dot (Beth Broderick), his neighbor across the street, it quietly rings out as a yearning for someone, anyone maternal. And when he wants to show her the hot ride he purchased with his newfound cash, it plays not so much as Look At Me! as Is This What It Takes To Make Friends?
Maybe, but maybe it also brings trouble. That trouble swiftly arrives in the form of Webb (a remarkable James Landry Hébert), a career petty criminal, incarcerated as “Two Step” opens and making calls to senior citizens in the hopes of getting one to erroneously wire him the necessary funds to get sprung. Eventually he gets James’ mentally deficient grandma on the other end of the line and convinces her they know each other. Once out, his crime chieftain, gas station owner Duane (Jason Douglas), makes the requisite demand of money that needs paying back ($10,000) which leads Webb to James’ doorstep. Low key but no less wrenching havoc ensues.
Webb is an extraordinary villain specifically because of just how un-extraordinary his character is. Though Hébert outfits him with a menacing charisma, he isn’t really crazy-eyes bloodthirsty until he’s backed into a corner, and the reasons for him winding up in that corner are noteworthy. “Two Step’s” biggest reveal isn’t the kind of OMG jaw-dropper these sorts of films usually strive for; rather it’s entirely character based. Though we think Duane is merely some chicken fried version of a mob heavy, he turns out to have more slightly noble matters on his mind than earning what he’s owed. And though we think Webb is merely the umpteenth bloodthirsty crackpot, he’s someone with a code and, he thinks, an untraditional sort of father figure. When that’s taken away, he’s got nowhere else to go, and so he tries to take everything for himself.
Johnson’s means of conveying the fallout from all this never become too grating. Though there is a fair share of violence and ensuing blood, it’s never overwrought, and that makes it feel that much more grisly. When blood is spilled, it means something. As Webb goes rogue, Johnson relies on old-fashioned edits rather than any sort of shaky cam nonsense. In one scene, a character sits on a back porch, keeping watch. Then, there is a cut to the kitchen. Then, a cut back to the porch, and the man’s gone. Simple, yet effective. As director, Johnson never has to show us the money, perhaps because he didn’t have any, perhaps because he wouldn’t have tossed it around if he did. He builds tension from the matter-of-fact, and because he does, when Webb wields a gun, you never believe he isn’t capable of using it.
The counterpoint to Webb’s reign of terror becomes Dot. Her character is something of a rarity, one that isn’t particularly integral to the plot, yet nonetheless essential to the tone, a tone that wants to cast as much light as negativity. In most movies a character like hers, one that doesn’t factor into the thriller structure, simply existing on periphery, offering a shoulder for the young protagonist to lean on, would be nixed. But Johnson employs her as the counterpoint. If Webb is the darkness, Dot exists to let the light shine back in.