“Man with Van” doesn’t have exactly the most inspiring title, but it represents Ed Blythe’s debut feature well since the film, like its central character, a master electrician named Kier (Morgan Spector), is the modest, highly skilled type that doesn’t call attention to itself. It just wants to see the job done right. The kind of simmering thriller that delivers the same pleasure as pulling a dog-eared Mickey Spillane paperback from the shelf for an afternoon read, it breathes new life into the well-worn premise of a good man pulled into a bad situation and surprising both himself and an audience through using his wits in ways he could’ve never predicted.
Blythe and co-writer James Windeler boast a sharp ear for dialogue, evident from the the “Man with Van”’s very first moment in which Kier is called into the office of his crew chief Lou (Nick Damici) and is hailed by his boss as “the overtime king in a world that pays no overtime.” Accomplished as Kier is in his work with wires, his finances are another story and recently separated from his wife Talia (Laura Fraser), he struggles to make private school payments for his daughter Hannah (“Louie”’s Ursula Parker), who nonetheless clearly prefers spending time with him. Played with the low-key cool he’s brought to roles recently in “The Drop” and “Chuck,” Spector makes such affection not so difficult to imagine, but as Kier, has trouble accepting an off-the-clock gig presented by Lou that would net him some extra cash for making an electrical fire appear to be an accident to collect the insurance.
Needless to say, Kier gets more than the $10,000 he bargained for when he strikes up a business arrangement with the shadowy Bennett (Mike Starr), who insists on his dim nephew Hammer (Jonny Orsini) to join Lou and Kier on the job, though it’s the generally relatively low stakes in “Man With Van” that give the film its considerable charm and suspense. Well within the realm of possibility for anyone watching it, Kier’s slow slide into both murky moral territory and the company of hoods whose limited ambitions are tied to their level of competence has the feel of a noose tightening around one’s neck precisely because of how each calculation Kier makes seems so reasonable at the time. While the crimes aren’t sophisticated, the film surely is, with cinematographer Paul Nicholls working the angles visually as much as Kier does to contrast the life to which he aspires versus the one he has and a taut pace that replicates his singular focus.
Still, “Man With Van” knows when to get its hands dirty. As clearly drawn as the underworld that Kier enters is by the filmmakers, it is appropriately seedy and while no guns are ever drawn in the illicit undertakings, Blythe and Windeler’s delightfully tart turn of phrase is weapon enough, one clearly relished by the cast, particularly Damici, a tough guy’s tough guy whose long had a way with words (besides his work as an actor, see “Cold in July,” which he co-wrote with Jim Mickle). For a film about a man who’s called on for his ability to create short circuits, “Man with Van” has no lack of electricity.