Low budget meets high tension in Kaaterskill Falls (at the Pioneer, through June 11), a debut feature by directors Josh Apter and Peter Olsen. A seat-of-the-pants production shot over 13 days in 16mm with the barest of scripts and a two-person crew, this chamber piece for three players was closely inspired by Knife in the Water (1962). This translation turns the macho sports journalist of the Polanski film into Mitchell (Mitchell Riggs), a neurasthenic (but equally controlling) computer consultant. His plans for a romantic weekend in upstate New York with his childlike wife, Ren (Hilary Howard), go awry when they pick up Lyle (Anthony Leslie), a taciturn but charismatic hitchhiker who embodies the countercultural urges that their tidy, dull marriage has managed to suppress.
Apter and Olsen seem to be channeling Cassavetes’s Shadows as well as Polanski’s film; the Scotch flows as freely as the loosely improvised lines, while the camera’s tight focus on the actors’ faces discloses their hidden frictions. The filmmakers skillfully evoke the sense of menace that nature holds for many urban dwellers. Also impressive is their eloquent ability to conjure up a character’s past by minimal means: a dinner anecdote about an adolescent mishap, or a photograph of someone’s mother. Sometimes, though, the editing is choppy, and the film could use more of a script. Mitchell and Lyle’s posturing suggests a problem at the heart of this story about men in the wild returning to their most basic instincts. Their competition is vividly imagined, but Ren’s vacillating figure is a relic from some era before the sexual revolution. The final plot twist hangs more weight on her shoulders than they can comfortably bear.