Southern Movie 39: “The Dynamiter” (2011)
Though it came out in 2011, eight years ago, I had never heard of The Dynamiter until I came across it in Amazon Prime, where its icon in that never-ending scroll of film choices was littered with award laurels. A stark independent film, The Dynamiter tells the story of a young teenage boy named Robbie Hendricks, who is living in dire poverty in Mississippi and whose responsibilities exceed his abilities. In the absence of a father and of his drug-addicted mother, Robbie tries to take care of his little brother and his grandmother, while navigating the return of his wayward older brother, who has failed to make it playing college football.
The story begins in an open field full of rolled hay bales, where Robbie and his younger brother Fess are playing a medieval battle game where they charge and attack (with sharpened sticks) the hay bales as monsters. Both boys have crew cuts. Robbie is a muscular young teenager in a sleeveless t-shirt and baggy jeans, while Fess looks to be 8 or 9 years old, a chubby kid, and we get from the scene that Robbie is a good old brother.
As the boys leave the field, they walk down a lonely dirt road. Robbie tells Fess a vulgar joke, and when Fess tries to share a joke of his own, all he can do is tell Robbie the same joke. Robbie then asks his brother where his pocket knife is. The boy looks guilty, and the older brother makes him admit that he lost it.
When they arrive home, an elderly woman is sitting silently and stoically on the small porch of their trailer, rocking in her chair, and Robbie tells Fess to give their grandmother a kiss. Fess says he doesn’t want to, but Robbie makes him anyway. That night at dinner, the three eat a simple meal, and Robbie emerges as the clear leader in what is left of their family. After dinner, the two boys take a shower outside with a garden hose while standing on old pallets, and Robbie instructs Fess to bathe properly and use soap. Inside, the boys lie down to sleep in one bed, head to foot.
In the morning, Robbie is taking out the trash while he sings a vulgar song to himself, yet when he is walking back to the trailer, he steps in a pile of dog mess. He yells after a young African-American teenage girl who is walking her dog, saying that her dog messed in his yard. She doesn’t look worried, saying, “If you saw it, why’d you step in it?” Robbie has no answer and goes back to the messy trailer, where Fess is standing on the steps in his skivvies and an old t-shirt.
Next we see Robbie, he is at school, leaning against the wall alone while other kids run around during what looks like recess. A few bigger boys bully smaller ones, and girls smile and talk. Robbie then picks up his backpack and goes inside where the halls are empty except for one bald, mentally retarded boy in a wheelchair. He begins to try lockers one by one, until one opens, and he takes a pocket knife just as a male teacher turns the corner. Though Robbie denies he is doing anything wrong, the teacher takes him by the t-shirt to the principal’s office.
In the office, a stern Principal Curtis with a Col. Sanders-style mustache begins by asking him what’s going on. Receiving no reply, the principal asks him about his family – his mother and his brother – and we find out a few details. The mother is absent, though Robbie lies and says she is living there with them, and his older brother was a good football player but a bad student who made it to play in college but got cut for academics. Robbie shrugs off these facts as though they have nothing to do with him. The man continues though, apprising Robbie that going to high school next year with a reputation as a criminal will not serve him well. So Curtis wants to withhold the option of calling the police. Instead, he gives Robbie a green spiral notebook and instructs him to write a long essay over the summer, and “if it’s well written,” Robbie will move on without the locker break-in being reported
Out in the hallway, Robbie is confronted by one of the boys we saw bullying other kids. Of course, he has his middle-school minions behind him. The boy, who is a head taller than Robbie but looks more affluent, accuses Robbie of stealing his knife. Robbie blows him off, and the boy clearly knows better than take Robbie on right there. Instead, he hands Robbie a sheet of pink paper and says to be there, or everyone will know he’s a thief and coward. Robbie unfolds the paper, and it is a homemade invitation to a girl’s year-end party.
On the bus ride home, passing expansive corn fields, Robbie’s thoughts come to us in a voiceover, as if he is writing the essay. He doesn’t know what to put in this essay . . . and moreover takes the opportunity to be ugly about the school, the teachers, and everything he can think of about the school. The bus drops him off at a dirt crossroads, where Fess is waiting for him. He gives the knife to Fess, who asks where he got it, but he tells the boy not to worry about that.
When they get home, a young man is sitting in their kitchen with pretty, half-dressed woman on his lap. It is their older brother Lucas, who is cocky with a pock-marked face and and messy hair, and his new girlfriend is with him. Lucas oozes misplaced arrogance, as he invites the boy sit down and eat what looks like KFC takeout. Of course, the hungry boys begin shoveling in the chicken, corn, and biscuits, while the grandmother sits silently smiling.
Later, on the porch, Lucas sits with Robbie while Fess shows the young woman his collection of makeshift weapons. Lucas advises the woman to give Fess some money so he’ll be quiet, then explains to Robbie that she is a lawyer’s wife and that he sees himself as allowing her the freedom that her husband doesn’t. Robbie seems taken aback by this and tells his brother that their mother sent a postcard from California saying that she wanted to come back home but couldn’t yet. Lucas advises Robbie not to have any faith, that it’s a waste of time, before he ends the conversation by getting up to play with the dog.
Robbie and Fess are then in waders, sifting through the muck in a slimy quagmire, looking for spare change thrown in for wishes. They have found eighteen cents so far when Robbie finds a silver dollar. As they wonder over Robbie’s find, a fat sheriff walks up and says that he knows they aren’t doing what it looks like they’re doing. He asks them if they know anything about some boys who have been filing pennies down into dimes and putting them in Coke machines, but the boys deny any knowledge. That fat man makes Robbie throw the silver dollar back in the water then ambles back to his car. Of course, the next thing we see is Robbie and Fess filing down the coins and putting them into a rusty Coke machine.
Back by the waterside, Robbie eats a sandwich and contemplates the pink invitation. Fess asks what he will do . . . then Robbie is seen with his thumb out on a two-lane rural road. The voiceover begins again as Robbie tells Mr. Curtis (and us) that he has never been in a fight before but that he can’t let these boys smear his name: Hendricks, his father’s name, a man he has never seen. He ruminates for a few sentences on what past and future generations of Hendrickses will do or think, and he ends there as he arrives at the middle-class home where the party is.
In the backyard, a group of middle schoolers in shopping-mall clothes stand around, cups in hand, while music plays. When Robbie comes in, he is obviously an outlier. He gobbles down a cupcake in one bite, then sees a pile of gifts and cards on the table, before he is told by one friendly mom to go outside with other “graduates” (from eighth grade). When he steps out the door, the mood turns swiftly, since everyone knows that the fight will happen. One friendly girl, whose house it is, comes over to dance with him, asks him about the fight, but he blows it off. The big bully then comes over and they get into it! Robbie holds his own, until every other boy at the party jumps in to help the bully pound and kick the thief.
When Robbie wakes up, his face is bruised and he is lying on the girl’s couch. The girl tries again to be sweet to him, but Robbie decides instead to move out of her sight, steal her graduation cards, and sneak out the door. He takes the cards to the bathroom of a closed cafe to empty the cash, but the law is already on his tail. The fat sheriff and a black deputy pound on the door as he tries to hide the evidence, but Robbie fails miserably. They have him. Robbie is taken out in cuffs as the sheriff explains that the girl and her mother don’t want to press charges. The two lawmen get into the car to drive away, and Robbie tries to get in the back, thinking this will be his ride home. He declares to back of the car that the walk home is twenty-two miles.
It is still night when Robbie walks up on the side of a house to drink from the hose. As he does, a shotgun enters the picture and the person holding it puts one in the chamber. It is the African-American girl from the dog-mess scene earlier in the movie. Robbie tells her that she’ll have to shoot him, since he’s been walking all night and is too tired to run. They talk for a moment and during the conversation, the girl Mamie kisses him. Robbie jumps in a panic and leaves quickly.
Back at home, Robbie gets a postcard from their mother. It contains a vague message about how she loves them and wants to get better. He reads it to Fess, who grins as he listens, then tells the boy that need to get up and clean the house in case their mother comes home. The two sloppily paint the porch white, while their grandmother watches quietly, and when Robbie goes inside, he is called into the den by Lucas, who is smoking and drinking beer and lying in the couch. Lucas suggests to Robbie that he should get a job to tide them over. The middle-schooler looks tiredly at his college-dropout brother and acknowledges the idea but not much more.
Taking this task onto himself, Robbie hitchhikes his way into town and begins job-hunting. He has Fess with him, and he first storms awkwardly into two businesses – a clothing shop and a restaurant – but is denied both times. Then he wanders into a ratty, little gas station where a big, bearded man behind the counter is looking at a girly magazine. At first, he ignores Robbie then gives him the worst job one can imagine: cleaning a nasty gas-station bathroom. But it’s a job, and Robbie is thankful. He announces at dinner that night that he has a job. All his brother can say is: “Great, let’s eat.”
Next, Robbie is up at sunrise, heading for the gas station. By this point in the movie, about halfway through, it isn’t hard not to notice a few things: Robbie is wearing the same clothes all the time, and that his personality is a strange mixture of the angry defiance of a young teenager and the mature kindness of a person with people to care for. Robbie’s life is comprised of an absent father, a wayward mother, an elderly grandmother, a simpleton little brother, and a useless older brother. Robbie’s days are now filled with pumping gas and walking long distances. He is at once a hard worker and a thief, a caregiver and a tough.
One evening, in a restaurant, where Robbie and Fess are eating ice cream with Lucas, Robbie begins to chastise his older brother for lazing around the house and not working, but Lucas shrugs him off. He is eyeing one of the waitresses, and soon ditches his brothers to talk to her, promising to cook them all a big breakfast the next morning, Of course, the next morning, Lucas is still asleep when Robbie gets up for work. Robbie is visibly disgusted.
Later, Lucas appears drunk with two women, neither of whom are the waitress or the lawyer’s wife from earlier. They look like mother and daughter, and Lucas has his arm around the older of the two, telling Robbie that the younger woman is for him. The crassness of his display is uncomfortable as Lucas treats them like objects, new toys that he has brought home to play with. The two couples go to the movies, where Lucas makes out with the older woman. The younger woman quickly gets frustrated with Robbie, who won’t make a move, and when she tries to force him to grope her and kiss her, his inexperience makes it awkward. She quickly gives up on him, pouting that he won’t do anything.
The next day at the gas station, Lucas shows up and claims that he is going into town to look for a job. Somehow, he has money and is riding with someone in a nice new truck. A man in a car tries to speak to Lucas, asking him if he is still playing football, but Lucas turns his back on the man rudely.
At home that evening, Lucas comes home drunk while the rest of the family is trying to sleep. Robbie gets up and tries nicely to ask him to be quiet, but Lucas doesn’t respect the request. Robbie tries to keep it calm until Lucas begins banging on the bedroom door, calling Fess a “half-breed” – he is their half-brother – and saying the little boy has to leave. Finally pushed over the edge, Robbie tells him to leave Fess alone or “I will kill you!” Surprised by the response, Lucas lets loose some bluster and threats but does not try to overpower or even challenge his younger brother.
Robbie’s situation gets progressively more sad and pathetic, and that culminates in a scene at the little league baseball field. He and Fess are eating shaved ice, and as he looks around, Robbie sees boys warming up in their uniforms, children playing with puppies, girls giggling— and he knows that all of these things are beyond his reach. Though he never says it out loud, Robbie recognizes that he has too many responsibilities.
Two things happen then that make Robbie realize that something must change. At the gas station, a sheriff’s car pulls up for gas, and the waitress that his brother was talking to is in the back seat. Robbie asks what happened, and she replies, “Ask your brother.” Then, at home, right as Principal Curtis calls the house wanting to speak to their mother, Lucas comes in, carrying the lawyer’s wife, who is unable to stand on her own, and he drops her on the bed, gets her wallet, and takes all of the cash. Robbie hangs up on the principal and witnesses this theft, and after Lucas steps out onto the porch, he orders Fess to his room and calls the police on his brother. At the emotional crux of the film’s story, Lucas is standing on the porch and declares that he is ready to leave and wants Robbie to come with him, the two of them, brothers, but Robbie shakes his head and says, “No.” Knowing the police are coming, Robbie goes out the back door and has a screaming and crying breakdown.
As The Dynamiter moves into its last twenty minutes, things have changed. Robbie goes on a bus to visit Robbie in jail, but the elder brother only tells him an anecdote about how their upbringing leaves them with no chance of a decent life then he hangs up. Robbie tries to tell him that he brought him some things, but gets cut off. Next we see Robbie, he is working again, cutting grass for a woman, while Fess sits on a rock nearby.
When they get home, he declares that they are going out to Spectator’s, a sports bar, for dinner. Robbie, Fess, and Grandma get in a taxi and go out to eat. While they’re there, Robbie runs into Mamie, who tells him that she is having a going-away party. Robbie wants to know why, and she says that he is leaving her father’s house to go live with her brother and mother. Back at the table, Robbie looks long and hard at his grandmother and brother. It is clear that he is thinking again about his responsibilities.
A knock then disturbs us into attention. Robbie wakes and goes to the door. It is two foster care workers accompanied by Principal Curtis, who hangs his head and will not look at Robbie. The vicious tension in Robbie’s eyes tells the story. The social workers tell him to get his brother and come with them.
The Dynamiter ends with scenes that come at us quickly. We see Robbie and Fess sitting at a table full of boys, eating in silence, and we see Robbie walking alone through the halls of high school with an intense gaze downward. We also see him eating lunch alone, and just as happened with the party, a Chevelle full of bigger boys pull up beside him on a dirt road and jump him. It is clear that, while his situation may have changed, Robbie has not. He sees that Fess may well be taken into home or adopted, too. Robbie has a quick talk with Fess, who answers questions with his usual slow indifference, and then he takes his little brother out into the field one more time to attack and defeat and the hay-bale monsters. During these scenes, Robbie’s voiceover essay to Mr. Curtis explains that he has always had dreams but they shrink into nothingness, and as that voiceover comes to an end, he rides in a truck with Mamie and her brother, running away from foster care, leaving for good to start fresh somewhere else, but not forgetting to throw his silver dollar in the water and make a wish before he goes.
Critics’ responses to the film seem to center mainly on the fact that, despite its title, the story lacks the explosive plot point that we expect given that title. However, reviewers also didn’t fail to give props to what was done well. The Times-Picayune‘s online NOLA.com called this film “a slow-burn, Mississippi-set drama that is steeped in atmosphere and a gritty, sweaty sense of place – but the film has more of an appreciation for subtle, emotional charges than for big, attention-getting ones.” Similarly, Variety had this to say: the film “captures the rhythm and texture of its environment but is too understated in the telling, owing largely to an ensemble of non-pro locals who look the part but lack the charisma to make us care.”
I agree with Lewis Grizzard that there are few things more aggravating than a non-Southerner trying to act and talk like a Southerner, and while the acting in The Dynamiter may not have been Hollywood quality, what the actors do have is Southern-ness: swagger, attitude, speech patterns, pronunciations, reactions. This movie couldn’t have been what it was, if it had seasoned pros in the roles, because these “no-pro locals” didn’t have to be taught how to carry themselves. Sadly, you have reviewers like IndieWire’s James Rocchi, who wrote, “It’s not about real people, it’s about making the director look like an artist,” which proves that he might know movies but doesn’t know the South. The director may not be a Southerner either, but his movie got it right because the players did.
What is most beautifully Southern about The Dynamiter is that the subtext is all there. Robbie’s attitude is steeped in his circumstances, and all he has left is his integrity and the love of his family. Lucas feels cheated and resorts to petty criminality because football was the only way out of poverty that he saw. Fess is at the bottom of the food chain, and only knows how to sit still and to be guided. Unfortunately, just as the other characters are left in morally unwinnable predicaments, Principal Curtis has it no better, left with a choice of violating this boy’s pride by taking him away from his only remaining possessions – home and family – or leaving a middle-schooler to near-starve and work himself to the bone trying to be a stand-in parent and caregiver. Any Southerner would watch this movie and know why the characters behave the way they do. Don’t get me wrong: we wouldn’t necessarily condone it, but we would understand it. Because it is real.