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Skip Tracer directed by Zale Dalen at the Orson Welles

ONE OF THOSE bona fide type crazies was preaching on the street corner the other day. Four feet tall with a placard. "Listen," he said, "and know that man's powers of dispossession are far greater than his powers of possession." Terrific. "There are a lot of luxury cars out there, but even the wealthiest people can own but a few." This is true. "On the other hand," he said with absolute glee, "It's entirely possible not to own hundreds of thousands of Mercedes. So you see . . ."

The guy had a point. It's logical but not terribly convincing (especially considering that the whole spiel was an attempt to bum a quarter. "Just think--another quarter you won't have to own."). His preaching aside, people in these times still clamor to own just about everything they can possibly imagine. Cars, homes, Cuisinarts, video-cassette recorders--and if you can't afford it, then you simply buy it on credit, borrow money, get a loan, try our EZ Payment plan, Master Charge it, put it on the tab, Leo--anything. It seems the inevitable extension of the consumer age. The old Puritan Ethic might have built this place, but it's the old play-now, pay-whenever attitude that keeps everything running. It's all very pleasant. New cars wall-to-wall, French-blended food, and Mork and Mindy whenever you want them--but there is a seedier side to all of this . . . just wait until you can't pay.

That seedier side is the subject of Skip Tracer, a new Canadian film from the nether reaches of British Columbia. A skip tracer is a fellow who tracks down anyone who has skipped out on a debt. He's the smiling guy in the three-piece suit nailing a For Sale sign on your house, repossessing your car, walking out with all your living room furniture. It's all legal--after all these things are no longer yours--but it's a nasty business, and the people who do it for a living are nastier still--picture if you can the Frito Bandito with seven years of EST under his belt.

The particular skip tracer of this film is one John Collins, Vancouver's finest, Man of the Year for his firm three years running, and probably the coldest, most calculating lead character of the year. With his stylish suits and grown-out crew cut, he is the epitome of the emotionless bureaucrat, a surly, cocky SOB whose meanness is matched only by his ruthless efficiency (pardon me, I'm raving). He'll follow you around town, visit you at work, call you on the phone. Not that he doesn't have his own standards--pay up and it's all buddy-buddy--but welch, and he'll stop at nothing. He may not break your legs, but then again he'll never rule out the possibility either. It's a deliberate form of mental violence, playing on your paranoia and letting your mind do the rest. And it almost always works.

It's also terribly fascinating to watch. David Peterson, a little-known Canadian stage actor, plays Collins and he holds your attention every minute he's on screen. He has DeNiro's cold intensity and Dirty Harry's ruthlessness. He explains he's so good at his job because it's all he does. The first part of this film follows Collins around Vancouver as he carries out his dirty work. For the fourth year he's shooting for Man of the Year, and even though he's a bit behind there's little doubt as you watch him operate that he'll make it up. You won't necessarily like what Collins does--he takes a television set away from an impoverished child watching it (actually you might sort of like that one), he poses as an old friend to get information from your neighbors, he gets on the phone and starts out happily, "Joe, is this Joe? Wow, great to get through to you," drops the act and it's "Where the hell is my money, Joe. I'm getting disappointed in you." He sounds a bit more than disappointed, and the old horror-fascination of watching someone just this side of the law keeps you involved.

And all of this takes place in a faceless city where everything's for sale--the whole place has an air of colorful hopelessness, a Club Med in the ghetto. "You ought to be in pictures," says a Kodak ad. The lottery offers to make you a millionaire. And through all of this is wandering Collins. He does his business in porno lounges, movie theaters, used car lots--everything's for sale and it all has to be paid for.

WHAT IS REMARKABLE about this film is that director Zale Dalen manages to sour this entire setting without being too blatant about it. This is Dalen's first feature and it shows--there is the slightest hint of home-movie about this film in the camera placings and the colors. But the pacing is superb and an imaginative use of soundtrack keeps you there. In fact, the home-movie quality--the slight hint of innocence about the film, the complete lack of slickness--actually helps the film. The whole thing looks innocent enough, but what you're seeing is awful.

Even more remarkable, though, is that Dalen actually gets you to care about Collins. When the brass decide to throw Collins out of his private office because he needs motivation, the line between the victim and the victor gets blurred. Seated there in a bright plastic secretaries room, even Collins can't beat out the system he's been enforcing. As Collins tries to work his way back up to his old status, his coldness takes on a different dimension--it's him against you, and neither party can afford to lose. Dalen manages to pull off this shift without a false note, and it's pretty impressive.

The crisis point comes for Collins when he must close out one final account in order to regain his Man of the Year slot. Collins isn't worried. "Everyone's got a sob story," he tells his account. "Don't tell me about your deals. I know what you are. Your wife knows what you are. Your kids know what you are . . ." But how far can he push it? Collins goes to the man's house. The TV is blaring, Merv Griffith is ranting about Jacqueline Susanne, a great artist. He wanders through the suspiciously quiet house--a prefab chalet sitting in Vancouver. Can he collect? How much is all this hype worth? How far are you willing to push it?

This entire sequence is an unnerving sojourn into the cost of plastic happiness. Unfortunately, the producers felt compelled to tack a happy ending onto this film--an ending which is so satisfying that it doesn't work. But even this cannot kill what has gone before. Dalen so successfully blurs the distinction between the consumer and the seller (something else) that the disquieting aspects of his film just can't get lost. The happy ending elates for a moment but then in light of the rest of the film it's a bogus note. But aside from this, this is an unnerving little film, a very fine first feature which does more than simply show promise. The few flaws are annoying but not fatal. Dalen and his crew would be better off in the future not to go for the upbeat ending, but it's tough to blame them--everybody's got bills to pay.