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Director Jim Mickle's 2014 film Cold In July is a commendably straightforward crime story — the sort of no-frills, high tension thriller that seem fewer and far between in today's more genre-friendly movie landscape. I mention this movie in particular because Mickle's cinematic follow-up, Netflix's In the Shadow of the Moon, is a notably more fluid and far less linear in terms of narrative, tone and classification. A time-travel and detective-oriented mystery drama nicely bolstered by a committed lead performance from Boyd Holbrook, Mickle's newest movie is notably much more ambitious and audacious than his last effort, but it doesn't capture his same slick steadiness. It's a bumpy, if good-hearted, movie that finds you miss Mickle's cool command.
In the near future, we discover that the world is in ruins. Mayhem and destruction run rampant, while a not-entirely-subtle, old-fashioned American flag waves burnt and tattered among the wreckage below. What caused this devastation? For that answer, we first need to travel back to 1988.
In Philadelphia, police officer Thomas Lockhart (Logan's underrated Boyd Holbrook) works the graveyard shift with his partner, Maddow (Fargo season two's Bokeem Woodbine), watching the days go behind until he can become both a detective and a father, notably with a very pregnant wife, Jean (Legion's Rachel Keller), bedridden at home. But an ordinary-looking night takes on less-than-usual circumstances when several people around the city hemorrhage to death in grisly ways – notably with their brains turning into a puddle of blood out of their orifices and mysterious dots found on the back of their necks.
While his stern brother-in-law, Detective Holt (Dexter's Michael C. Hall), is adamant about solving this case on his own, Thomas and (with no shortage of reluctance) Maddox go around Philly looking for clues to these mysterious circumstances. Eventually, they learn that a young woman (The Last Man on Earth's Cleopatra Coleman) with a shaved head, a blue hoodie and a bloody hand is behind these string of mysterious hemorrhages around town – which continue to grow throughout the night. Despite serious pushback from Maddox and Detective Holt, Thomas is adamant to find some answers.
Without getting into some major spoilers, let's just say that time travel is involved and the second half dives into some more kooky material, which could be fun if it wasn't played so straight. The admittedly leaner first half —which is fairly procedural (and even cliched) as far as detectives sagas go, even with the added sci-fi elements sprinkled throughout — is nevertheless more comfortable from a directorial and screenwriting standpoint, with Jim Mickle feeling at home with the detective-with-a-fire-in-his-belly story. It's told with stark visuals, a fine story command, and a few fun character beats.
Unfortunately, after an engaging first third, In the Shadow of the Moon falls into uncertain territory as it jumps between timelines, with our overly driven lead character pushed into the further recesses of madness trying to find clues to a case he might not be able to solve without sacrificing everything. It starts to delve into some predictable Interstellar/"Cat's in the Cradle"-type adversaries about the dangers of being too caught up in your work, but the story beats grow both repetitive and expected, with a final twist that even I — a man who is terrible at guessing twists — saw coming an hour earlier. The action/mystery/sci-fi/time travel elements are meant to give it some spice, but they ultimately make a too-rote story feel hasty and wavering.
While Jim Mickle's previous film was notably and commendably a stripped-down thriller, it should be noted that the filmmaker isn't a stranger to playing with genres. He also made the similarly enjoyable cannibal family horror-drama We Are What We Are, as well as the less successful (but still intriguing) vampire drama-horror, Stake Land. He is also the creator behind the little-seen SundanceTV series, Hap & Leonard, which was an adaptation of a Joe R. Lansdale book series of the same name.
Mickle isn't always known for his straight-shooting, it should be stressed, but he generally has a better command of the story and tone than he does with In The Shadow of the Moon. As it stands, this curiously both consistent and frustratingly inconsistent film feels like both what we should expect from the filmmaker and a well-intentioned mishap from a director who understandably still wants to branch out.
As In the Shadow of the Moon grows less intriguing and engaging as it moves forward in time, it should be noted that the performances themselves don't lose their luster. Boyd Holbrook continues to prove himself to be an exceptional and undervalued talent, carrying the right mix of driven desire and weathered dismay that bounces back-and-forth between the character's tortured timeline. The supporting cast, likewise, does a commendable job — even when the material doesn't always serve them well.
The only actor who doesn't find his balance throughout his Michael C. Hall, rather surprisingly. The actor is straddled with an accurate Philly accent that nevertheless wavers (like seemingly everything else) throughout the movie. He is making some big choices in this movie, and while it's interesting, his performance is ultimately more distracting than anything else.
By the time I got to the ending, In the Shadow of the Moon felt like an underwhelming misfire, the type of film with solid potential that nevertheless became another Netflix original movie that hasn't lived up to its earlier promise. No matter. Like many of these Netflix originals, it'll get lost in the glut of original content found the streaming service. It will ultimately be quickly — and rather unceremoniously — be overlooked, then forgotten, over time.