Synopsis – An inventive crime thriller told backwards — reversing day by day through a week — following a local sheriff’s quest to unlock the mystery of three small town criminals and a bank heist gone wrong.
My Take – Don’t we all love a well-crafted thriller which manages to keep us on the edge of our seats till the very moment the end credits begin rolling in. Personally, I prefer a thriller to be set in a small town, where we get to see only a limited number of suspects to work around, hereby making matters a bit more complex than an urban setting & when done right, the setting can also play an important part of the puzzle to solve. Thanks to the sudden rise in appreciation of the films categorized under Indie, audiences are now more open to watching films, no matter the cast or the studio behind it, that presents itself with a clever narrative or a visual device that makes sure that whole experience ends up being challenging and entertaining. For example, films like director Christopher Nolan ‘s Memento or director Quentin Tarantino ‘s Pulp Fiction play with structure and timelines to create a disjointed story in order to keep the audiences guessing while engaged. Unfortunately, the recent The Girl on the Train (2016), which despite all tropes, failed in the basic department i.e. the suspense, hereby making the build up towards the climax quite formulaic. Here, a debut feature from Oren Uziel is the latest addition to Netflix‘s increasingly impressive original programming catalogue, is one such film, although not a perfect, manages to add an unexpected and fresh addition to this over familiar genre. Released on June 9th (Netflix premiere), this little-publicized Indie film is a well-crafted thriller that uses a reverse style narrative to hook us in a small & non-ambitious situation, that very much revels in keeping its audience in the dark! Nope, there is no hand holding here, no re-explaining of things that the audience might miss, just a reverse chronology of events, told in a clinically simple, linear fashion. While the situations perceived in the film might categorize the film as a dark comedy in the guise of a murder mystery, it’s the other way round depending on how you perceive the film and its cast of established comedians. T
The story follows a local Sheriff Zeke Sikes (Benjamin Walker) of a small American town, as he investigates a bank robbery, committed by his former prosecutor brother, Andy Sikes (Rainn Wilson) along with the town’s former high school football star quarterback & now frequent criminal Ed Burton (Wyatt Russell) and his meth-headed former assistant Chris Morrow (Mark Rendall), who doesn’t like to be called ‘stupid’. Joining the hunt for the three men are two FBI agents Kyle (Ron Livingston) and Kurt (Rob Corddry), who are more than happy to let Zeke & his partner Adam (Reed Ethington) handle the legwork. The investigation leads them to the bank’s owner and town judge, Brad Dawkins (John Michael Higgins) and Ed’s enigmatic yet distraught wife Steph Burton (Stephanie Sigman), who is still reeling from the loss of their five-year-old son in an accident the year before when Ed’s lab blew up at Shimmer Lake. As the story winds backwards, more players present themselves, the plot thickens, and suspects who didn’t seem like suspects at first emerge. The film tells its story in reverse order over the course of a week. Each day is given a section heading and opens with a character waking up at the beginning of the new day. This style of storytelling certainly isn’t anything new and the movie doesn’t do anything with it to stand out as unique, but it still works for the story and makes it more interesting. Pieces slowly fall into place until everything is tied together at the very end of the movie (which is coincidentally the very beginning of the depicted events). On the face of it, the film sounds like your garden variety thriller, however, the sheer irreverence of this film makes it better than the usual offerings Hollywood comes up with. However, director Uziel has wicked command of his material, as the transitions from one segment to another are done in darkly funny moments where different characters seem to wake up from a bad dream. We then follow their journey and understand, in small doses, what the heck happened to them and how they contributed to a seemingly giant criminal mess in a small town. The film almost feels like an out of the box experiment that somehow works even though the rules of filmmaking seem to not allow it to. It’s quite impressive how writer director Oren Uziel manages to keep the mystery intact despite giving away the final shot in the first scene in the film. Much like in director Nolan’s Memento, even though you’re aware that the character in the first scene gets shot at the tension never wavers the next time you see the character alive, plunging into a series of events that would lead to his shooting. The first time the film jumps back in time one tends to wonder why this reverse narrative was needed for the story because the ‘mystery’ isn’t fully apparent by this point. As the film progresses, however, the layers are peeled away and suddenly there’s more at stake than one originally thought. There’s a clever way to make the mystery seem denser than it actually is by withholding information from the viewer in the first act. There’s also a lot of confusing data hurled at the viewer in the second segment, with no less than four different character names mentioned without showing their faces. The story being told in reverse is pretty key to keeping this story interesting. You would think seeing what was going to play out would kill any urgency to the plot but I didn’t have that problem. Some would describe this is a gimmick but here director Uziel pulls it off pretty well. If you were to tell this story in chronological order, it would be the pretty typical ‘friends turn on friends’ whodunit. The movie wouldn’t be awful but I would imagine it would lack the surprise it would need. It gives the movie something to stand out from the crowd and it definitely helped in keeping me interested in what was going on. The film falls frequently into common thriller tropes, but never feels stagnant and too familiar. This is all because the way it is told in reverse helps reveal the more common story elements in a more entertaining and unique way. By telling the film in reverse, the audience is able to draw their own conclusions about how the characters ended up where they are before going back and having the plot filled in with somewhat contrived and formulaic answers to our questions. With all these funny people rounding out the cast, it sure seems like the film was initially written as a comedy. And if you pay attention, the movie is wickedly funny in the same vein as Fargo, which also skewers small town life. The film’s funniest moments are actually a result of the reverse storytelling. Toss-off lines from the first section are given context and greater dimension 10 or 20 minutes down the line, when the film reveals a joke like the cathartic pop of a Jack-in-the-Box. Uziel is also talented at forecasting some of the film’s twists in its earlier sections, doing so in a way that feels more intriguing than heavy-handed. In fact, the film’s climax does a fine job of bringing together its disparate parts for a resolution that’s surprising, effective, and logical. The darkly humorous parts become obvious thanks to deputy sheriff Reed Ethington. In the first 10 minutes of the film, Reed walks to the police cruiser and expects to sit shotgun next to his partner, sheriff Zeke Sikes, but a mailman of all people is in his seat, instead of calmly hopping in the back, Reed walks a few years away to dramatically scream “Why!” in an alarming display of emotions, soon enough it’s pretty clear why Reed is so emotional about a chair, every time Zeke picks his partner up for patrol, someone new is riding shotgun. At one point, Zeke’s adorable front-seat sitting young niece Sally tells Reed, “Get in the back you fat fuckin’ bastard.” The deputy sheriff’s face of pure disbelief is priceless, as is Sally’s pleased smile to her uncle.
The most grimly funny scene, however, happens to be the moment judge Brad Dawkins dies. It’s revealed the married family man is pulled into the complex bank heist because he’s hiding the fact he’s gay while preparing to run for the Senate. Amid all the criminal tension, Brad invites his young male lover named Billy (Matt Landry) to his home for sex. Billy loves meth and ends up rushing to the bathroom since the drugs “flushed him right out.” At that exact moment, fellow conspirator Andy shows up to collect the stolen money, which is in a duffle bag. As a gun-wielding Andy and Brad fight over the criminal cash, a completely naked, sweating Billy hides in the bathroom attempting to stop his extremely noisy bowel movement. The juxtaposition is ridiculous. Just when Andy and his loaded pistol are about to leave, Billy very loudly loses his battle with his intestines. Andy rips opens the bathroom door to finds a nude Billy screaming in his face. Altogether, the young man shrieks for about 15 full seconds as Brad and Andy fight over the gun. When the weapon goes off, leaving Brad the casualty, Billy promises not to say anything and darts out of the bedroom still totally naked — but not before carefully picking up each and every piece of his meth paraphernalia. However, it cannot be denied that once you get past the obvious hook with the unique process, you’re mainly looking at a story of a basic bank robbery gone bad. We’ve seen this in other movies but they do enough interesting stuff to keep you guessing. There are a lot of side-plots being interwoven into the main through-line that you don’t get an explanation for till you see the end. This is a pretty delicate tightrope to walk but they also pull it off more than they don’t. The thing is, as much affection as I choose to have toward the film, there’s no escaping the fact that it is what it is, and that is a poor man’s Coen Brothers’ rip-off lacking in self-awareness. From the dialogue to the tone to the visuals to the narrative structure, this film is a derivative of better filmmakers on nearly every level. And that wouldn’t be as big of a strike against it if its script was just the slightest bit better. As is, though, the dialogue is rough at best and the characters’ behaviors make little sense. The initial backwards unravelling of the crime can be quite confusing – there only appears to be a point when it’s funny, and since we don’t yet really know many of the characters involved, their actions don’t make a lot of sense. The quick pacing of the film is a blessing, otherwise it would have been difficult to get through the middle section. Ultimately, the viewer is left to interpret the almost Saw-like ending the film poses. Are we watching a cautionary tale? A dark comedy? Both? Director Oren Uziel has weaved a lot of string for viewers to play with. And at the end of the film, depending on your preference, he either tied the whole thing up in a neat little bow or you just didn’t connect the dots. The cast comprising of Benjamin Walker, Wyatt Russell, Stephanie Sigman, Rainn Wilson, Ron Livingston, Adam Pally, John Michael Higgins, Rob Corddry, Mark Rendall & Matt Landry fill in their odd roles, they do their jobs effectively. On the whole, ‘Shimmer Lake’ a fairly solid thriller which despite its simplicity boasts enough twists to keep you engaged.
Directed – Oren Uziel
Rated – R
Run Time – 83 minutes