The Countryman (2023) short film review

Bitterness threatens to destroy a small farming community until a stranger arrives with a curious proposition in Andy Kastelic’s short film The Countryman.

It has been a while since we’ve seen a new film from Andy Kastelic, too long really because Kastelic is a genuine, independent visionary and a brilliant filmmaker. Our last review was for his short ‘The Misanthrope’ back in December 2021 when we gave it 5 stars, before that we reviewed his vampire horror ‘St Augustine’, and we gave that 5 stars too. Then came ‘Torchlight’ also 5 stars, while a few weeks before that we reviewed his short film ‘Typhoon’ which garnered? Yes, you’ve guessed it, another 5 stars. I don’t think Screen Critix staff have reviewed films by any other director that have had such a perfect hit rate, Kastelic is quite simply a freak of nature, and his talent surely can’t be overlooked by Hollywood for much longer. Due to a couple of issues, The Countryman is a tiny blemish on an otherwise flawless record, but even though it’s arguably weaker than Kastelic’s earlier efforts, it is still an excellent piece of drama and a top-quality viewing experience.

Filmed in luxurious black and white and set during the great depression, The Countryman is a Capra-esque fantasy drama that begins with tragedy, the stabbing of John, played by Kastelic regular (the usually menacing but here more light-hearted) Jack Forcinito and it ends with hope. It is John who promptly rises from the dead, breaks the fourth wall, and begins to narrate the story of what happened to this once booming, midwestern farming town. In an opening monologue, we learn why it has fallen into disrepair and how the locals’ desolation has taken the form of arguments, fighting, and even murders amongst themselves. Into this struggling town wanders stranger JW Chapman played by director Kastelic, all posh suit, and charm who offers good money to buy each person’s hatred. Initially skeptical, those who take Chapman up on his offer find themselves feeling much happier the following day. Along the way, Chapman finds himself up against John’s granddaughter Mary, a cynical young girl who isn’t swayed by his offer (played by the impressive Marie Wagenham) and the odd person who isn’t happy being happy; it’s an interesting juxtaposition that leads to people making some major decisions.

The drawbacks to this 20-minute film are fairly minimal, I would have liked to have learned more about the other villagers and how their lives had benefited from their sudden lack of hate, while the narrator being visible feels more gimmicky as opposed to adding anything to the overall story. Meanwhile, the ending seems to dwindle and peter out, although it does lead to us wanting more.

Yet the short has many strengths that make up for a slightly muddled premise, which is a mixture of Shane, Pale Rider, and any number of films where a stranger comes to town and makes it a better place, it’s not really a Western and it isn’t particularly violent. It is, however, wonderfully acted and the other shorts we see this year will have to go some way to matching Jannis Schelenz’s brooding cinematography in which he creates a sense of darkness and shadows during the daytime. Kastelic’s characters stand in the heat and shade with world-weary faces half-seen, sweaty, and hot under trilbys, fedoras, and straw hats, convincingly creating a 30s-style movie experience.

Again, Kastelic has excelled in making a film that wrings his audience’s emotions. The Countryman is a parable of impulse and then redemption and, while it’s not as powerful as it should be, it is still a film that signals to Hollywood there is a director outside the system who with the right backing has the potential to create something very special.