In the Land of Lost Angels is Bishrel Mashbat’s feature-length directorial debut, and he makes the most out of what was probably a shoestring budget. This is a tight, carefully made film and an extremely promising start to a career–stylish and gripping, a familiar but well-handled suspense plot in a specific and rarely explored milieu.
Everything is concise. We don’t get an elaborate, prolonged backstory on kidnappers Ankhaa (Erdenemunkh Tumursukh) and Orgil (Iveel Mashbat), the two Mongolian-Americans at the center of the film. Their introduction is handled with admirable succinctness and a lack of sentiment. They need money. They need it for their families, but the film doesn’t use this as an excuse to get sappy: they have their loyalties, but they’re not saints. In fact, their treatment of their victim–Scott (Mike Cali), the adult son of a father with notably deep pockets–is often viciously, pointedly cruel, and Mashbat films it with a detachment that makes it all the more chilling. What little we see of Scott himself, outside of the small bathroom where he’s held hostage, suggests he’s a grade-A douchebag. And like his kidnappers, he’s clever, but not as clever as he thinks. He tries one semi-competent ruse early on–one that was never going to work, but hey, points for trying–and then immediately worsens his position by revealing that he knows more about Ankhaa and Orgil than it’s safe for him to know.
The film keeps things moving, focusing in intimately on three guys in an apartment and the audience’s understanding that things are bad and surely getting worse. The tight perspective gives Mashbat the chance to stagily but believably incorporate the ordinary details of his protagonists’ lives: they talk about girls, they watch TV. (The snippets of TV are chosen perfectly enough that while they may kill the naturalism, they provide some much-needed laughter to break the gathering tension.) And it’s all shot well: black-and-white cinematography that places Orgil and Ankhaa’s saga in the history of LA noir and looks pretty damn good to boot, handheld when it needs that jittery effect and glossy and clever when it doesn’t. It has some of the standard faults of a low-budget first film–occasionally stilted acting, a little too underdeveloped in places–but its virtues easily outweigh its faults. This has some of the flavor of the early Coen Brothers, and Mashbat clearly has a good career ahead of him.
In the Land of Lost Angels is streaming on Amazon Prime.