San Francisco isn’t that big a town, and you’d think a local filmmaker with four feature films to his credit would, at the very least, be recognized in his preferred Lower Nob Hill café. Maybe it’s asking too much, given the intense, talky nature of JP Allen’s work, for his name to be familiar to the general public, but his barista-slash-bartender should be wise to the man’s oeuvre. Perhaps five will be Allen’s lucky number, and Centaur will raise the curtain once and for all on his emotionally raw yet refreshingly thoughtful movies.
The choice of a theater metaphor is not accidental, for Allen comes from a stage background and continues to teach acting along with filmmaking. His films — Coffee and Language, Gambling, Belief and Sex and Imagining — were made for a pittance and typically rely on a few unusually brave actors to put over psychologically astute relationship dramas distinguished by crisp, pithy dialogue. Centaur is even more stripped-down and direct, but paradoxically it’s also his most open cinematically.
The main character, a man with no name played by the writer-director, addresses the camera, and the audience, at the outset. “I’m planning to kill someone, but I’m just like you and I want you to understand me,” he announces. “Maybe you’ll agree with me and maybe you won’t, but come along with me.” Thirty-three days later, the man’s plan will turn into action, and another man’s life will hang in the balance. Centaur takes the form of a video journal leading up to and beyond the fateful (fatal? don’t expect a spoiler here) day.
“I’ve always loved the idea of a diary format,” Allen relates over a caffeine drink at Cup-a-Joe on Sutter. “I basically came down and wrote Centaur a day at a time for 33 days. I don’t know that you would call that a [writing] exercise; I just thought it was the most honest way to go about it. The whole idea behind it, for me, is that he’s trying to communicate with somebody as he makes the piece. So the action of the film is constantly breaking the fourth wall.”
For moviegoers used to passively slouching in their seat and watching a movie unspool, Centaur is alternately seductive, voyeuristic, discomfiting, meditative and darkly hilarious.