Sometimes cinematic experimentation can render a film's quality moot. This is not one of those times.
Hail's origins are kind of amazing, though. It purports to be a hybrid film, mixing fiction with reality by casting a real life ex-con and his real life girlfriend to more or less play themselves in a scripted story inspired by the real life ex-con's thoughts, fears and memories of ex-con-dom.
And without a doubt, filmmaker Amiel Courtin-Wilson creates the film's minuscule universe with impeccable detail. You can tell just by looking at photos of Daniel P. Jones that he's not your everyday actor wearing makeup and taking field trips to minimum security prisons for research. The same can be said about his girlfriend, Leanne Campbell. Hail never strays more than a couple feet from Danny's hulking but decrepit body (except for some random stock footage of a horse falling from an airplane), but all the details surrounding him are realized with the same level of authenticity exuded by his physicality. It's not enough to say you can smell his and Leanne's house through the screen - I found myself brushing imaginary fleas off my legs and nearly choked from all the cigarette smoke.
We dive into all this reality during the film's first half, which not-coincidentally also features the film's most sustained bit of actual storytelling. The film opens with Danny just as he's released from prison and comes home to a woman who loves him and a life he doesn't know how to live.
Danny truly is amazing. This is a guy who puts in dentures for the first time and worries that finally having teeth will make him look strange. He's so ruined and wheezy that he can barely muster a breath big enough to perform CPR at one point.
But while definitely a man with raging anger issues, Danny isn't an emotionless monster. In fact, he appears to feel too much, causing him to react without thought or defensibly lash out for perceived slights that do not exist. Leanne is also a well fleshed out character, though we don't get to know her quite as well. Despite being the more clear-headed of the two, she certainly has anger and moral issues of her own. Together they make quite a squalid pair.
This early stuff is great but still foreshadows the problems that will later overcome and sink the film. Many scenes last roughly 1,000 hours for no apparent reason, and the film overuses a technique where all the sound drops out in favor of music even though the scene hasn't actually ended yet. So when Danny and Leanne get in a shouting match, you hear a bit of it, but pretty soon you just have to watch it while listening to some stark song. Luckily, the soundtrack kicks ass.
More troubling is the film's reluctance to part with narrative information, which grows from a minor irritation in this first half to full-blown obstruction in the second. We're offered only the barest knowledge to help figure out what's going on in Danny's life. For the most part it doesn't matter, but when Danny hurts himself at work, for instance, it raises an unnecessary amount of questions to never tell us how hurt he is, what exactly the consequences are, and how much time passes between injury and healing. All the many things we don't know add up and block our empathy and tension.
A major event divides the film's two halves and once it transpires, the film devolves into an out of focus, shaky cam mess of abstraction of the worst possible order. Artistic obscurity is one thing. Cinematic obstructionism is bullshit. There is one borderline centerpiece of unidentifiable montage matched with eardrum piercing cacophony that comes close to adequately make use of this stuff.
But even when it ends, we seem to remain more or less stuck with remnants of it for the remainder of the film. It's not completely unwatchable, but it's close. The smoke will clear occasionally for a scene that might have some marginal narrative meaning, but soon we're back in the funk of what I can only assume is meant to represent the warped and frazzled inner workings of Danny's brain, an ugly place that I wanted to leave as soon as possible.