Dir/scr: Jay Duplass & Mark Duplass. US. 2012. 76mins

The Do-Deca-Pentathlon

Followers of the prolific Duplass Brothers will be mildly surprised at this highly original take on middle-aged sibling rivalry, which addresses some of their usual subjects (tensions involving ordinary in ordinary situations) but with amped-up pacing and a daring, bold use of music. Riskier and more intense than their other work, it could easily win them new admirers oversaturated with banal mumblecore chitchat and de-dramatised narratives that have proliferated in the indie scene in recent years.

The Duplasses lace the film with humour, which almost always stems from the skewed situation at hand.

Although it was shot four years ago, and put on the shelf once Cyrus was greenlit, this most structured of their films comes in with almost Wagnerian precision at just 76 minutes. It’s a natural for festivals and venues that attract audiences looking for accessible works that circumvent the mainstream. It’s probable that their daring gambles on rhythm and sound will pay off for Fox Searchlight and their brother’s professional standing. 

Brothers Mark (Duplass regular Zissis) and Jeremy (Kelly) reignite their almost perversely competitive relationship two decades after high school, while at a family reunion ostensibly to celebrate Mark’s birthday. Their mode of interaction is visceral, channelled into athletic matches but, less socially sanctioned, constructed on the acknowledgment that, as Jeremy says, “We have fun by beating the shit out of each other.”

At first behind closed doors in their mother’s tiny house in suburban New Orleans, they revive the do-deca, their self-invented series of 25 physical “events” to discover who, now that they have the opportunity to finish the matches, is the champ. They are so serious and committed that you almost feel the testosterone oozing from the screen.

The directors take brilliant advantage of the brevity of the multiple events and the extreme evidence of strain—close-ups of men in “combat” pushing themselves as far as they can go— packed into the short scenes, shot up close and skilfully edited for maximal effect by Deuby and Sanders. (The film was first edited in 2008, then reedited this year in time for its premiere at SXSW.) Especially given the subject matter, the rapid-fire montages of snatches of the games add a tight martial quality to the more relaxed scenes that recall most of their other movies.

Kudos to Wass for the bold scoring, which was added this year and replaced the temporary soundtrack from 2008. The filmmakers “announce” each shot of an event with a high-volume flourish, like a drum roll, and overlay the scenes with more pounding music, some of it reminiscent of epic gladiator movies.

The purpose could be to provide back up for the extreme actions we are viewing, the feeling of excess we get from the images, or maybe it is intended as parodic counterpoint to the unadorned visuals in which the brothers act out the complexity and unresolved dilemmas of their relationship. In lesser hands, the Duplass’s application of music could have fallen flat, even appeared like an amateurish school-film mannerism. In fact, it is inspired and memorable.

No glamour here. The settings are nondescript spaces in gyms not unlike those you find across the country, or the unassuming rooms of their mom’s home. The guys are not exceptionally attractive and are out of shape—Jeremy is at least a jock, whereas Mark is fragile, under a doctor and psychiatrist’s care to decrease his potentially damaging stress level.

The Duplasses lace the film with humour, which almost always stems from the skewed situation at hand. The comedy is sometimes physical, at other times a function of the absurdity of the on-screen action, but never of the easy laugh-out-loud variety. When grown men with big tummies and marital problems (Mark) or financial woes (Jeremy) behave with no self-awareness like shadows of their much younger selves, the ludicrousness is inherently comic.

The film is almost totally focused on Mark and Jeremy’s rivalry and how they handle it, but there are small peripheral conflicts. Mark’s frustrated wife Stephanie (Lafleur) tries in vain to assert control over the men. Their shared obsession with winning so obsesses and sidetracks them during this brief reencounter and its stolen moments of closet do-deca that they forget to return to Mom’s to help prepare for the birthday party, much less arrive in time for the festivities.

It does touch on issues such as the fear of aging and the fragility of human support systems, but not deeply enough to undercut the brotherly war at the centre. In this sometimes animal environment, a small hug takes on a powerful resonance that will touch even the most callous spectator.

Production companies: Red Flag Releasing, Fox Searchlight Pictures

International sales: Fox Searchlight, www.foxsearchlight.com

Producers: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass

Co-producer: Ross Partridge

Cinematography: Jas Shelton

Production designer: Marguerite Phillips, Ross Partridge

Editor: Jay Deuby, Nat Sanders

Music: Julian Wass

Main cast: Steve Zissis, Mark Kelly, Jennifer Lafleur, Julie Vorus, Reid Williams