Jim Mickle’s neo-noir thriller sets out with a great deal of promise, and ultimately delivers very little beyond a well-realised milieu in a highly unsatisfying and unwieldy follow-up to his Sundance hit and cannibal thriller, We Are What We Are.
Post-Dexter Michael C. Hall with an unfortunate mullet stars as a small town-Texan and picture framer Richard Dane, who fatally and somewhat unwillingly shoots an intruder in his home. Told by the local sheriff Ray (Nick Damici) that the deceased is Frederick Russell, a wanted felon, Dane struggles to come to terms with taking another person’s life while his fellow townspeople congratulate him. Trying to assuage his guilt, he goes to Frederick’s funeral where he meets Frederick’s father, Ben Russell (Sam Shepard), fresh out of gaol and looking for revenge. Ben makes ambiguously threatening remarks about Richard’s family, sending our poor everyman into a protective overdrive as he gathers his son and his wife Anne (Vinessa Shaw) and calls the police. What appears to be an overreaction is vindicated when Dane’s house is broken into and bullets are left in Richard’s son’s room. Later that night, Ben appears in the house and attempts to take Richard’s son in a truly tense and terrifying sequence. Foiled in his attempt, Ben runs for the border and is apprehended in Mexico. Richard can relax now, right? Wrong – when finalising the paperwork at the police station, Richard sees a wanted poster for Frederick Russell, and realises that that was not the man he killed. Later, he observes the police drugging the recently arrested Ben and leaving him on the train tracks – Richard realises he and his family were used as bait to catch Ben in some greater plot, and saves him from certain death. Together they do a little exhumation to confirm their suspicions – Frederick Russell was not the intruder. Ben contacts an old friend, flashy private detective Jim Bob (Don Johnson), who is able to find out the Frederick Russell (Wyatt Russell) is alive and well and living in witness protection, where he is up to some truly horrible activities of the snuff-porn variety. The question for Ben is now that he has found his son, what does he want to do with him?
This often feels like two films rather than one – when watching the man-bonding and albeit effortlessly entertaining chemistry between Johnson and Shepard, it’s hard to believe you’re still watching the same film that was playing off every home intruder nightmare you’ve ever had a mere thirty minutes ago. Ultimately, this is the film’s failing – what began as a tense and tightly woven psychological thriller becomes a pulpy, wacky detective adventure. The laughs don’t start until the second act, and when they do, they diminish the power of the first. All of that tension and the stifling claustrophobia of small-town Texas that had been almost artfully built up unravels, and the film unravels with it. Veering into the ridiculous at times, the plot loses its focus and despite the strength of the characters, it also loses its impact. At one point, a character dies atop a heap of VHS tapes – each one symbolising a woman brutally killed in the production of snuff-porn. This moment and its heavy revelation is completely lost in the absurdly handled death of that character. Quite simply, Mickle can’t have his cake and eat it too, and I feel that he needed to decide what sort of film he was making before taking on such a mixed bag. What we are left with is a hodge-podge of cool and smooth pulp, overblown violence and horrifying, deeply affecting casualties. Caught between so many masters, the film fails to fulfil on any account.
It’s a shame to see such a strong cast of performances let down by such an inconsistent plot – Johnson visibly revels in his sleazy detective persona and Shepard manages the transition from villain to victim to vengeful vigilante with virtuosic aplomb. Hall is solid as our everyman connection to this dark world of crime and misdeed – suitably horrified and out of his depth, he anchors the film while never quite distinguishing himself. Vinessa Shaw is excellent as Richard’s wife, although she is done no favours by a script that is for the most part uninterested in women except as victims and objects to pervert or protect.