It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Rob Nilsson's "Chalk" opens with half an hour of murky, grungy scene-setting in a San Francisco pool hall. Out of this miasma, the story gradually wells up; without quite realizing when it happens, we pass from passive witnesses to active watchers. What purpose does the shapeless opening serve? Perhaps to immerse us in the movie's world, to provide a passage from one reality to another.
The story, once its outlines have become clear, involves a black man in his 60s named Watson (Edwin Johnson), who runs a pool hall with his two sons. He spent time in Japan, we learn, where he perhaps fathered Jones (Johnnie Reese), who is half Asian. His other son is the adopted Korean American, T.C. (Kelvin Han Yee), who walked into the pool hall one day.
Jones wants to set up a high-stakes pool game between T.C. and a man named Dorian James (Don Bajema), who is a ranking professional. T.C. hesitates. He has choked before, and there are hints that Jones hopes T.C. will fail again. Then T.C. discovers that Watson is dying and decides to accept the $10,000 match and prove himself to his adoptive father. Filling out the canvas is Lois (Denise Concetta Cavaliere), T.C.'s girlfriend, who works as the bartender in the pool hall.
As I describe this plot you are perhaps thinking of "The Hustler" or "The Color Of Money," but "Chalk" feels nothing like those films. It is more like a movie extruded from the world in which it is set. Information about its making is essential to understanding its feeling. It was directed by Nilsson, a fiercely independent filmmaker whose earlier titles include "Northern Lights" (1979), about a farmer-labor strike in Minnesota, and "On The Edge" (1986), with Bruce Dern's great performance as an outlaw runner who makes one last great effort.