"There are 32 ways to tell a story, but there's only one plot: that things are not what they seem." This is a line spoken by a spunky Mackenzie Davis at the beginning of the Texas-set noir Bad Turn Worse. Her plucky energy and sweetness paired with this obvious foreshadowing promise a crime drama slick with twists, turns and a shocking conclusion. But this is a promise Bad Turn Worse fails to keep.
Bad Turn Worse begins by establishing a trio of high school friends who are set to separate as the start of college approaches. Bobby (Jeremy Allen White) is a sweet but dull-eyed boy eager to leave his hometown in his dust when he scuttles off to college, against his drunken mother's wishes. Sue (Mackenzie Davis) is lithe, lovely and a voracious reader who seems guaranteed to make a real go at the world. But B.J. (Logan Huffman), their roughneck childhood pal/Sue's bad boy boyfriend, is destined to stay in this rundown town. Fully aware that he may lose his girl and his best friend forever, B.J. robs a dangerous drug dealer to treat Bobby and Sue to a wild weekend of debauchery and luxury. But soon the three are found out, and wrangled into a bigger heist that couldn't just cost them more than their college aspirations.
Five minutes in, B.J.--who we've already see pull off the risky robbery--strolls in a dusty café to interrupt a conversation about books between Sue and Bobby. You know the score. B.J. may seem confident, but not so secretly he is jealous of his college-bound friends, and is instantly suspicious that Bobby will try to steal Sue away from him. But hey, Sue just said that "things are not what they seem," right? So surely, there will be more to this thriller than the obvious love triangle turning friends into foes, right? Wrong. The plot sets up a good guy, smart girl, and young thug that are inexplicably all best buds. Then it puts them through the exact paces you'd expect.
In their directorial debut, brothers Simon and Zeke Hawkins show a skill for creating a great look for their noir, one sour with sweat and yellow hues like nicotine stains. However, when it comes to plot they offer a tattered jumble of scenes and stumbling pacing. The script from Dutch Southern is weak, setting up stereotypes, but developing no depth. And the cast struggles to make good on Bad Turn Worse.
Huffman plays B.J. as ever on the brink of enraged, which makes for some tension, but mostly a one-note performance. White is abysmal as Bobby, offering blank stares whether he's casually conversing with Sue or facing the very real possibility that she might be raped by vengeful thugs in front of him. Thankfully, Davis is outstanding as Sue, playing tender and tough in turn, giving complexity to a love interest who could have been little more than a plot contrivance. And really, Bad Turn Worse has plenty of those as it is. Davis, who stole scenes in the likewise underwhelming That Awkward Moment, provides further evidence that she should be getting bigger, better roles. Of the three leads, she is the only one who elicits empathy, pulling the audience into the drama of these seemingly doomed teens.
Davis is great in Bad Turn Worse, but she's not the best part. Really the reason to watch this messy and maudlin thriller is Mark Pellegrino. A long time TV actor, Pellegrino seems a revelation on the big screen, raw and mesmerizing as Giff, a low-level criminal with aspirations of being a boss. His voice grumbles with a jaunty sense of menace. Giff might be low on the underground crime ladder, but he's ambitious, and loves his work. He threatens with a sense of bravado and the patter of a game show host, daring the central trio to take the job he proposes, or else see what lies behind door #2. Spoiler: it won't be a new car.
In a conclusion that is cluttered, Pellegrino shines letting loose his unhinged badass as if this movie went from noir to flat out horror. He monologues and stalks his prey with sick relish that's gruff and unforgettable. If you have a special love for great bad guys, then you must absolutely see Bad Turn Worse. And if there's any justice, we'll all be seeing a lot more of Pellegrino and his brand of bad.
Ultimately, I could make some pun about how the movie lives up to its title. Yes, it's a shambles of stereotypes and predictable plot points with a couple of duds for leading men. However, there's something special and almost good in Bad Turn Worse. Mackenzie Davis delivers with a portrayal that is poignant, yet playful at times. And Mark Pellegrino manifests a villain that will have movie lovers referencing this pic for years to come.