If Martin Scorsese updated The Roaring Twenties, the classic Jimmy Cagney movie about returning World War I vets who come home and find that the only jobs available are with gang lords and bootleggers, it would look a lot Sean Kirkpatrick's rookie feature, Cost of a Soul.
In his gripping and emotional film, two soldiers, hollow-eyed and bone-tired yet standing tall, return from the devastation of Baghdad to that of North Philadelphia.
Over there, they fought on the same side. Back here, they are on opposite sides. That's because Tommy (Chris Kerson) is pulled back into service for a crime lord engaged in a turf war with the drug-dealer brother of Darren (Will Blagrove). Their reentry proves to be as lethal as the worst days of their deployment. Legitimate job opportunities are scarcer than a playground with a hoop and net.
Tommy comes home to meet Hope (Maddie Morris Jones, in a quietly affecting performance), the physically impaired daughter he's never seen, and is pressed back into service as a hit man. Darren returns to the home of his mother (Diane M. Johnson) and finds that she's estranged from his brother Darnell, a drug kingpin who had recruited their younger sibling, Jimmy.
The skills that Tommy and Darren learned in the service prove to be useful on the rowhouse streets of North Philadelphia. Given the neighborhood's demographic shifts, it's hard to know who's an ally and who's an enemy.
"When we had control, it was better," proclaims Charlie Burns (Gregg Almquist), the gimlet-eyed mob boss to whom Tommy is indentured. Charlie wants to "take back the neighborhood" and take out Darren's brother, a rival dealer. Charlie mourns the days when German and Irish immigrants ran North Philly, before the demographic shifts resulting in a major African American presence. Kirkpatrick's script shows that hope and honor, like greed and lawlessness, are color-blind.
Graphically shot by cinematographer Chase Bowman, whose cityscapes are as acute and drained of color as the residents, Kirkpatrick's film sharply etches its characters. But for a few panoramas of rowhouses and one glimpse of the city skyline, Cost of a Soul might have been shot anywhere.
The film's first two acts are exceptionally strong. Though its third is overkill, Cost of a Soul is a haunting and remarkable feature debut.