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'Out of the Black'

Film mines riches of W. Pa.

Saturday, September 08, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

On the day his life collapses like the Steelhead Mine in Cambria County, a 10-year-old boy named Cole Malby is instructed to forget everything he saw.

But how could he forget the deaths of his father and a fellow miner, the explosion that would precipitate the closing of the mine, and the gunshot that put his mother in a wheelchair and left her unable to speak? That is how "Out of the Black," a drama filmed in Tarentum, Natrona Heights and other Pittsburgh locations a year ago, opens.

 
 
"Out of the Black"

Rating: Unrated but PG-13 in nature.

Starring: Tyler Christopher, Sally Kirkland

Director: Karl Kozak

Critic's call:

   
 

The "black" can be interpreted a number of ways: The inky dust of the coal mine. The shadowy secrecy that envelopes the once-prosperous town. The dark, alcohol-fueled mood of the adult Cole, who has never made peace with his past.

As the movie makes the rounds of the festival circuit, it will be shown tonight at the Byham Theater. The movie, directed and co-written by Karl Kozak, skillfully blends a strong Pittsburgh and national cast with Western Pennsylvania locations that lend an authenticity not possible on a soundstage or in a Canadian city cheating for an authentically American one.

"Out of the Black" opens in 1976 with the explosion and then spins forward 13 years. Cole (Tyler Christopher) and his younger brother, Patrick (Jason Widener), juggle caring for their paralyzed mother (Sally Kirkland) with operating their farm and butchering their animals. The death of the town's wealthiest man, who owned the mine, triggers a series of life-changing events and long-simmering confrontations.

The man's widow (a brittle, chain-smoking Dee Wallace Stone) plans to evict the Malbys from their farm, a young New Yorker claiming a connection to the dead man arrives in town, and Cole and Patrick compete for her attention. Woven into the dense web of town life are the sheriff (Jack Conley), a lawyer (Tom Atkins) and a couple of funeral home employees (Michael J. Pollard and Sally Struthers) who make the folks on "Six Feet Under" seem almost conventional.

As Cole pursues the truth of what happened in the mine, long-kept secrets are brought to life -- sometimes with deadly results.

 
 
Screening Party

"Out of the Black" will be shown at 8 tonight at the Byham Theater following a 6 p.m. reception. A party after the screening will beheld at Froggy's Downtown. Tickets are $20. Call 412-456-6666.

   
 

The story doesn't quite hold together, and I spotted a couple of continuity gaffes in the unfinished print I watched, but Kozak has assembled a strong cast led by Christopher, Widener and Kirkland. Onetime "General Hospital" star Christopher brings a moody impulsiveness and sexiness to his role as Cole, while Widener (fresh from playing young Josiah Bartlet on "The West Wing") counters with an innocence reminiscent of a teen-age Matthew Modine.

Kirkland more than meets the challenge of spending most of the movie in a wheelchair, unable to speak. Her eyes and facial expressions are her actor's tools, and she uses them to great and dramatic advantage.

The screenplay can be a bit muddled when it comes to the flashbacks and the ending, which is filled with real and emotional pyrotechnics. Still, "Out of the Black" takes advantage of the area's riches -- from the Tour-Ed Mine to the stately homes that instantly signal wealth and status -- and even taps Pittsburgh bands Mercury and Grapevine for the soundtrack.

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