Flap-flap-flap goes the American flag in an insert shot at the beginning of Chlorine, and the message is clear: The goings-on in this ensemble drama will be the U.S.A. in microcosm, with each plot thread woven into a faded red, white, and blue tapestry. The residents of Copper Canyon—a small New England community built on the tragic firmament of the Native Americans who inspired its name—are all either guilty of capitalist greed and exploitation, or quietly suffering the consequences. Co-writer/director Jay Alaimo (Slingshot) and his writing partner, Matt Fiorello, extend a measure of sympathy to all of them, and Alaimo has assembled a cast of TV and film veterans to give the dozen or so characters a distinct flicker of individual life. But it’s hard to not see the puppet strings above everyone’s heads as Alaimo tugs them into big statements about suburban emptiness, economic flim-flammery, family dysfunction, and other hallmarks of America’s foundational rot.
With shades of his turn in Full Metal Jacket, Vincent D’Onofrio again plays a hulking figure who passively absorbs indignity until he finally can’t take it anymore. He plays Roger, a bank employee who’s allowed 20 years to pass with a VP job dangling in front of him like a carrot on a stick, but he hasn’t been able to grab it. His failings have finally lost him the support of his wife Georgie (Kyra Sedgwick), who’s started riding a motorcycle in a pathetic bid to claim her lost youth. Their kids are no happier: Cynthia (Flora Cross) has entered into womanhood with no help from either one of them, and Henry (Ryan Donowho), who has a part-time job doing carpentry on a new development, is being asked to cut corners and defy building code. As it happens, Roger is eyeing that development as his shot at making a fortune, egged on by a raging coke fiend (Jordan Belfi) who wants the fraudulent project to bring him out of debt and into a deeper pile of blow.
To this, Alaimo and Fiorello add more: a tennis instructor/cocaine dealer (Rhys Coiro) who cajoles a teenage student (Dreama Walker) into bed, a mobbed-up contractor (Tom Sizemore) who bullies Henry into doing shoddy work, and a big-city transplant (Michele Hicks) with the sensitivity to counsel Cynthia and the financial know-how to sniff out a bad deal. There’s also a country-club swimming pool, to which chlorine is added as an occasional symbolic gesture. Restlessness, entitlement, and bad behavior are the common denominators uniting the adults in Chlorine, and it’s the kids who suffer from their neglect and absence of moral authority. The film is about how adults can sometimes act like children, and the unforeseen consequences that result. We know, because Sedgwick says it out loud in the third act.
Chlorine has the pallid look of an early digital-video production, and the soundtrack is either distractingly absent of ambient noise, or slathered with Jay Lifton’s pleading score. The setbacks and ironies that queue up in the third act are telegraphed much earlier, and the few loose ends of the plot trail off into curious places. Alaimo and Fiorello have attempted to update The Ice Storm for the age of housing bubbles and Bernie Madoff, when schemers promised a piece of the pie, and ordinary people duped themselves into stabbing a forkful. It’s a fine idea for a big social drama. The filmmakers just do a lousy job of hiding their agenda.