Runtime: 85 minutes
Director: Matthew Pope
Writers: Matthew Pope & Don M. Thompson
Stars: Bethany Anne Lind, Jared Ivers, Jimmy Gonzales
By Mique Watson
This is a lean, mean, deadly beast of an indie film–at times it is unbearably tense and unlike anything I’ve seen from this genre. Elevated by a star-making performance from Bethany Anne Lind (whose IMDB page I’ve checked; I must say that I am appalled that it has taken this long for her to be seen!). It is a southern crime-thriller that is thematically and structurally reminiscent of films like “Blue Ruin”; yet it is made fresh with the decision to center the story on a complex woman.
Leigh Tiller (Lind), a single mother who runs a vehicle repair shop (a job not traditionally associated with women, so kudos to that!) alongside her son, Ryan (Jared Ivers) and her seemingly-more-than-a-friend business partner, Rey (Jimmy Gonzales). The film opens up with her standing over a dead body; we are unsure who this man is, but it is apparent that his head was staved in with a wrench–that, and Leigh is the only other person in the room.
The palpable dread and anxiety in her eyes tells us all we need to know. This is brilliantly compounded by writer (co-written by Don M. Thompson)/director Matthew Pope’s decision to have the first ten or so minutes play out wordlessly. Dialogue isn’t used to convey what Leigh feels — her various, tortured facial expressions and changes in her breathing convey that perfectly.
After what we’re led to believe is a break in, Leigh’s life spirals into a nightmare of confusion and despair. We follow her as she struggles to stifle her guilt and protect her son from the truth. The film makes no bones about how Leigh’s plight is entirely her own fault. We instantly start asking ourselves: what would lead a small-town girl, one who presumably makes a good honest living, and supports an adolescent son (who she honestly doesn’t look much older than), to do something so heinous?
Throughout the course of the film, we learn that this alleged break-in is not all Leigh makes it out to be. Granted, nearly the entire film takes place from her subjective point-of-view; she is the protagonist, as such, we’re on her side by default. Leigh complicates things when she — out of, presumably, the kindness of her own heart and her maternal instincts — returns the corpse of the intruder to his family.
A genuine sense of humanity sets this apart from typical run-of-the mill revenge flicks. An undeniable sense of regret and horror comes from ending someone else’s life; particularly in a scene where Leigh witnesses the repercussions of what her act has done to this man’s family. This is one of the first of several emotionally brutal scenes; the physical gruesomeness is far from gratuitous. The effort — or lack thereof — it takes to kill another person is minimal, but the reality of having murdered someone and the grief of those affected by the deceased are present here as well.
Underscoring all the authenticity onscreen is a masterclass performance from Lind. She navigates emotionally challenging scenes with the fervor of a seasoned performer; one second she’s shy and timid, next she’s deeply mournful and filled with regret, then out of nowhere she’s fierce and menacing. There are zero doubts from the get-go that this is her film. Her performance compliments the unpredictability of her character — the expressiveness in her eyes makes it difficult to not sympathize with her.
The dynamic between her and her father (Will Patton) is rife with insight into the damage that comes with having been raised by someone with a disingenuous moral compass. Her complex relationship with her father is tied to a haunted past; “Jesus, kid — I’ve seen priests less hung up on old sins,” he laments to her at one point.
Lest you be doubt Leigh’s resolve based on my description of her, she is neither a shrinking violet nor a victim. If anything, she’s a fighter; as seen in her violent physical rebuke of a man’s sexual advances one night whilst she is drunk at a club. This fight-over-flight spirit also comes into play when we eventually find out why she had killed the man. This reveal leaves us questioning everything we’ve felt for her — it is a testament to how Pope plays you like a violin the entire time. The characters here don’t make drastic paradigm shifts — it is you, the viewer, who will be constantly switching alliances and questioning yourself.
Clearly, what Leigh has done is unforgivable — and the motivation behind her act is debatable: is this something we can attribute on her part to self-preservation, or just blind rage? And even if it is just blind rage, is she to blame for this entirely — especially considering how both she and her victim seem to have such a skewed and selective sense of morality? Can this perhaps be blamed on upbringing and culture?
There is a serious nature vs. nurture debate to be had here given Leigh’s relationship to her father (a man who has been known to twist the concept of justice to serve his own ends–thus, speaking to the fears of bias in law enforcement). Whether or not you believe that revenge is the answer; or that the ends justify the means — seeing this is worthy of the conversation to be had. As the film approaches its scorchingly intense finale, we are forced to take a step back and re-evaluate whose side we’re on; assuming either side is worth taking to begin with.