FOX TV entertainment could have hired writer-director Jason Noto who made this film here because this work could have been an episode of The X-Files. However, there aren’t any likable characters or any engaging characters like the protagonists in The X-Files. Obviously, that’s not supposed to be the case with Noto’s main actor here, Zane Holtz (From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series and Hunter Killer). Holtz plays Raymond Marrow or Ray, a former U.S. Marine, a soldier who fought in the Middle East. Ray returns home, suffering from PTSD. He returns to find that the mother of his son was in a car accident and is in a coma. He returns to find that her parents are taking her off life-support, so he returns to attend her funeral and take custody of his child.
That kind of loss and single fatherhood thrust upon a young war veteran are meant to endear us to Ray. It’s meant to make him “likable” and low-key “engaging” but it doesn’t quite come across that way. Noto presents a scene that feels like it wants to sell us on Ray as a character we like or wish to follow. Noto’s scene though backfires. Ray takes his 5- or 6-year-old son, Lawrence, played by Azhy Robertson, to the grocery store. There, a little girl makes fun of or is somewhat disgusted by Lawrence because Lawrence has what is either a huge birthmark or a huge red scar on the left side of his face. At first, Ray tries to get Lawrence to ignore the girl’s comment and give him self-confidence, but immediately later, Ray decides to use a crowbar to break the window of the car in which the little girl and her mother are sitting.
Ray’s moment of violence is at once supposed to be an expression of his PTSD that many soldiers have. It’s also presumably supposed to be an expression of how tough and how protective a father he is. Unfortunately, it only comes across as a huge over-reaction to something so minor in the grand scheme of things. Especially since it’s violence against women, it’s even more problematic. It’s not to say that situations like this don’t happen and shouldn’t be portrayed, but Noto never revisits this issue. There’s never a reckoning of Ray’s violence against these women. It’s even more problematic, given that this movie climaxes about a different man committing violence upon a different woman.
Other than that, Noto does concoct a scenario that’s curious from a supernatural perspective and that’s thrilling because it’s tinged with strong emotions. As mentioned, Noto’s scenario could be one that’s well placed as an episode of Chris Carter’s The X-Files. Carter and his writers, though, have an economy of storytelling that Noto lacks here. That economy of storytelling is necessary because an episode is less than a hour. Yet, an episode of The X-Files can feel so dense or rich in its plot and characterizations. Noto’s film here feels less dense or more hollow in its plot and characterizations.
In terms of the aesthetics and Noto’s sense of place, his film invokes similar aesthetics as Frozen River (2008), which is set in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. Noto’s film is set in Sullivan County in the Catskill Mountains, which is closer to Manhattan. There are similar landscapes, small and rural town locales, as well as similar socioeconomic environments, reflections in poverty and racial dynamics. It’s comparable to films like Winter’s Bone (2010), which is set in the Ozarks Mountains in Missouri, or TV shows like Justified (2010), which is set in the Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky.
That 2010 film and TV series both focused on the criminal element that underlies those bluegrass and redneck areas in both southern and northern American states. Noto involves that same criminal element too. While Winter’s Bone and Justified were able to fill in that criminal element to paint a vivid picture of the lives of the people within it, Noto merely draws a sketch of that criminal element. It probably would have required adding to the screen time, but Noto should have devoted more to that criminal element and the people within so that his ending would have landed with a bit more of an emotional impact.
Tammy Blanchard (The Invitation and Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows) co-stars as Caroline Marrow, the sister to Ray and a deputy sheriff in Sullivan County. She has an encounter with Bernie Coleman, played by Chance Kelly (Aquarius and Generation Kill). Bernie is the local gangster or kingpin who is running some kind of food stamp ring or operation. It’s not clear if he’s into anything harder, but everyone knows not to mess with him. Bernie showing up with guys with guns threatening people doesn’t seem like something that causes the cops to do anything. He seems to have some kind of an arrangement with the police like the characters in Netflix’s Ozark. It’s not clear why though and that’s just one example of something Noto leaves hollow.
This wouldn’t be a problem, if this were a B-movie action flick like Braven (2018), which is all about watching Jason Momoa be a big, buff, tough guy. That’s not the case here with Holtz who is giving a straight, dramatic performance that’s pretty subtle and muted. He occasionally has to be a disciplinarian father and strict with his son, but we don’t get much more emotional range from him. Noto also wants to lean in on his possible, supernatural premise and the drama to be gleaned from it. Unfortunately, Noto doesn’t glean as much drama as he could have or perhaps should have.
Halfway through the film, Noto reveals what the supernatural premise is. It’s basically that of reincarnation. We learn that Bernie’s daughter went missing and is probably dead. This supposedly happened around the time that Ray’s wife got pregnant. Ray and his wife lived in Pennsylvania where they were raising their child. Presumably, when Ray’s wife got into her accident, she was sent back to Sullivan County to be with her parents. When Lawrence is at the funeral, he starts talking about Bernie’s daughter as if he knew her and what happened to her. A doctor tells Ray that his son is the reincarnated soul of Bernie’s daughter. The conflict comes when Bernie wants to take Lawrence for himself.
This is actually interesting conflict. Bernie becomes a grieving father who wants to take the child of another man. There’s a lot that Noto could have done with that, but unfortunately, he doesn’t do nearly enough as he could have or should have. As mentioned, Noto introduces the premise half-way through. Noto then takes about 20 minutes stewing in that premise before finally kicking into gear with the plot. Lawrence accuses the local pastor of having killed Bernie’s daughter and the rest of the film becomes whether or not the accusation will be believed and thus acted upon.
It makes the last 20 minutes of the movie the most interesting and exciting, but the movie felt like it was spinning its wheels for the first 70 minutes. The ending is a little unsatisfying because it seems like Ray’s role becomes muddled. Ray gives Bernie too much latitude. He goes to the pastor for some unknown reason. Caroline doesn’t take action against Bernie, even when he openly threatens to kill her. The final sequence is also a bit muddled. It starts at night but then quickly jumps to daytime. Ray chases after Lawrence who only got a minute head-start, yet it takes him a long time to catch up to him. It’s a little confusing of a sequence.
Not Rated but contains language and violence.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 38 mins.
Available on DVD and VOD on February 5.