Images from Chalk (Rob Nilsson, 1996)

Chalk is an exciting rediscovery—a crackling, nervy gem from what now seems like a very distant era. Except that it’s not from the era you might assume on first sight. Rob Nilsson’s film was made in 1996 (although it wasn’t released in the U.S. till 2000), but has the distinct look and feel of a film from the mid-’80s, with its intense colors and glaring neons, and the heightened melodramatic register of some scenes. Even some of the women’s hairstyles seem to be from that earlier decade, although maybe that’s the point—the enclosed world depicted here is one that seems to have been left behind by history, and certainly by prosperity.

Revived this week at Metrograph in New York, Chalk has an incandescent intensity to it, although I have no idea whether that’s common to Nilsson’s work. The director, now 79, is much respected as a long-time outsider among U.S. independents; still maintaining a prolific output, he started his feature career in 1978, winning the Caméra d’Or in Cannes with his co-directed Northern Lights, and a Grand Jury Prize in Sundance with 1987’s Heat and Sunlight; he also made 1986’s On the Edge, starring Bruce Dern and Pam Grier.

Chalk, however, emerges from Nilsson’s long and productive association with the Tenderloin Action Group, a San Francisco workshop in which he collaborated with nonprofessional actors, many of them street people, on improvised dramas. In fact, Chalk began with a script (credited to Nilsson and one of the film’s two professional actors, Don Bajema). But the improvisation is apparent throughout, and overall the film lives up to the quote from Nilsson that is the first thing you see when  you look at his website.

“Cinema doesn’t interest me much unless I feel that pull of the ordinary, that thrill of real behavior leading, I hope, to those cathartic moments which seem to be the point of it all.”

Chalk is certainly big on catharsis, but the ordinary that runs through it is of a somewhat stylized kind: for example, we see a traffic cone blown off a sidewalk by wind, but the sidewalk is wet with rain and steeped in heavy reflections of the sort you associate with ’80s neo-noirAnd the “real behavior” is of a hothouse variety, set as it is in the context of a family drama whose tensions are sometimes downright Shakespearean.

The chalk of the title is the kind used by pool players, and here it embodies some kind of integrity, grit: no-account people are dismissed by one character as “all talk and no chalk.” Nilsson’s main setting is the Crabtree, a run-down pool hall in an industrial district of San Francisco, near train tracks and surrounded by cranes. The place was founded by an African-American pool player named Watson (Edwin John), now elderly and ill. The joint is essentially run by Lois (Denise Concetta Cavaliere), the no-nonsense young woman who works behind the bar, but its presiding figureheads are Watson’s scions: Jones (Johnnie Reese), whose mother Watson met during in the Korean War, and the adopted Chinese-American TC (Kelvin Han Yee). The latter is the self-styled spirit of the place—“I’m TC and you can find me up at the Crabtree—that’s what I’m about”—but he isn’t using his talent as best he might, instead hustling lesser players and enthused rubes out of pocket cash.

While an eminence grise mentor figure (John Tidwell) offers advice, the boys are at odds over the love that Watson gives TC but seems to refuse Jones. For reasons of his own, Jones is determined to set up his brother in a match with a renowned player named Dorian—played by Bajema in a glowering, faintly deranged manner that’s nicely underwritten by his lean, wolfish look faintly suggestive of either Jerry Lee Lewis or a young Harry Dean Stanton. The film opens mesmerizingly in a scene in which the tough-looking Jones goes to ask Dorian to play against his brother—and is given a more than humiliating bum’s rush by the much slighter-looking man. The opening is superb: DP Mickey Freeman’s DV camera weaves in slow motion along with Jones as he steps past tables drenched in pools of light, weaving through the place as if cautiously negotiating crowds of ghosts. The scene ends ominously with something you don’t see often—a fade to blazing red.

The drama—a calculated slow burn at 144 minutes—is largely composed of a series of confrontations leading up to a culminating extended game. There’s a tender scene between Walter and Lois, whom he says is like a daughter, and one that’s considerably more tense; various face-offs between Jones and TC; and a deeply unsettling scene in which Dorian makes a brutal move on Lois, with whom he’s earlier been flirting. Two terrific moments unfold between Dorian and his girlfriend Wanda (Destiny Costa), who sees through his posturing demon prince persona. One of these, in the back of a cab, is very droll, Wanda countering Dorian’s pseudo-mystical ramblings with the rejoinder, “I don’t want to hear any more Japanese hieroglyphic cosmology, if you don’t fucking mind.” The other is downright bizarre, as Dorian asks Wanda to ram his cue up his butt as part of what he calls a “pagan ritual”: the film’s splashes of deranged machismo neatly point up the fact that pool is after all a game about rods and balls.

The sense of territory, is neatly mapped out. In contrast to the enclosed, stagnant space of the Crabtree, with its cluttered back storeroom where Walter sleeps, is the upmarket venue where Dorian holds sway; unlike the Crabtree’s ’80s-style neon reds and blues (in 1999, critic Marjorie Baumgarten invoked the look of a Miller beer ad), this venue comes in blandly chic tones of green and lilac.

Nilsson gets terrific performances out of his mainly nonprofessional cast, some of whom he worked with several times, while others, like Cavaliere and Costa, have no other film credits. Edwin Johnson is very poignant as patriarch Watson, dignified but infinitely vulnerable, while Cavaliere’s forthright Lois, the sanest and the sharpest character here, works up a formidable intensity in a love scene with TC. Han Yee also stands out as TC, the wayward joker son, a Prince Hal who may never have it in him to become king. He represents a different, more feckless kind of dissolution to Dorian, Han Yee’s floppy lock giving the grinning narcissist character a tormented touch of Mickey Rourke; indeed, he has one ferociously unrestrained  meltdown scene, raging in a shaft of white light.

Freeman’s camerawork has a marvelous way with faces as objects, notably in close-ups that make Johnny and TC resemble sculptures in bronze—all the more so because faces in this film often shine with sweat, as befits the tension, the overall sense of hot nights and high stakes. The pool games are shot with bracing invention, whether the camera is slowly arcing over the green baize from above, or whether Nilsson and Freeman are coming up with novelty angles on the action, pumped up by David Schickele’s staccato editing: a tight close-up of a pocket, or a spinning shot, as if from the viewpoint of the ball itself.

The sound is densely atmospheric throughout—whether in ominous background thunder and the passing of nearby trains, or in the Crabtree’s background music of blues (a lot of it featuring veteran guitarist Harvey Mandel) or, in one scene, Charles Mingus’s “Self-Portrait in Three Colors,” a lament that seems to be leaking in from somewhere in the far, far distance.

Dramatically (sometimes melodramatically) sombre as the film is, there are nice touches of humor, as in a scene where a clutch of supposedly bohemian bikers turn up again as inept white rappers, presumptuously calling themselves the “New Last Poets.” There are sharp touches among the background characters too: a racist onlooker whining about the Rolling Stones playing black music; a mustachioed player who offers TC some laconic advice, aware from experience that pool is no way to earn a living. And the film has some superb dashes of vernacular wisdom, like this formula for the difficulty of exceeding your own limits: “You can’t bite your own teeth.”

Nilsson is an avowed admirer of John Cassavetes, but while reviews of Chalk have made that comparison, the film’s claustrophobic mood and its occasional theatricality (and I mean that in a positive way) also put me in mind of Tennessee Williams, or Sam Shepard. It is sometimes, admittedly, a film of broad strokes: I couldn’t quite believe it when Watson, racked with a deathly cough, says, “Get out there and go finish that goddam match!” And the drama erupts more than a little crazily at the end, departing from any base level of street-thriller realism as we discover the real stakes are in the enmity between Dorian and Jones.

A sometimes (deliberately?) muddy sound mix undeniably enhances the film’s rawness, but doesn’t always make it easy to follow, with the dialogue sometimes lost against background music or noise. But even where you don’t get all the words, it’s the sometimes raspy grain of the voices, along with the body language, the style, and the looks of the characters that communicate as much as words, in a way that’s super-expressive, sometimes to the point of being as expressionistic. It’s a terrific revival, and a timely one—you could hardly have a more fitting movie for a hot, tense urban summer.

Jonathan Romney is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes its Film of the Week column. He is a member of the London Film Critics Circle.