Lucky McKee is a director who’s been on the radar of horror fans for about fifteen years, since he broke onto the scene with MAY. His second one THE WOODS was only okay from what I remember, but I liked his Jack Ketchum adaptation RED. He probly doesn’t share my affection for it – he was fired for publicly unexplained reasons and a different director finished it – but his Ketchum assocation continued when he produced the adaptation THE LOST and actually co-wrote THE WOMAN with the author, based on one of his OFFSPRING characters. I think THE WOMAN is McKee’s best and most interesting by far, but in the ensuing six years he’s only done a couple silly things (ALL CHEERLEADERS MUST DIE and a segment of TALES OF HALLOWEEN) and I haven’t heard much about him.
Now all the sudden here comes a generically titled thriller for the VOD/DTV market and if you bother to check the credits then sure enough, there’s Lucky McKee. I assume it was never intended for wide theatrical release, because John Cusack (THE CONTRACT, WAR INC., THE FACTORY, THE NUMBERS STATION, THE FROZEN GROUND, THE BAG MAN, DRIVE HARD, THE PRINCE, RECLAIM, CELL, ARSENAL) plays the villain. It ‘s possible that it was a for-hire gig for McKee, since he’s written most of his previous movies, while this one is credited to Jared Butler and Lars Norberg. Both seem to be debuting as writers, but Butler voices the Johnny Depp characters (Jack Sparrow, Mad Hatter, Tonto) in a bunch of Disney video games! As far as I could tell he didn’t bring any of that knowledge to this story.
It concerns three college age kids who grew up together, now reunited for a camping trip, and they find some bags of money. And of course Cusack is the dangerous guy the loot belongs to, who tries to get it back from them. It’s a premise we’ve seen many times, but that’s because it works.
This has to work as character drama long before the money appears, and I think it does. The kids are Lynn (Willa Fitzgerald, the lead of Scream: the tv series), Victor (Ellar Coltrane, the boy from BOYHOOD) and Jeff (Jacob Artist, Glee). They’re excited to see each other again and they hug and wrestle and ask how the track team is doing and all that. But there’s tension because Victor and Lynn used to have something and he’s been hurt and trying to address it with her, and he notices every little time she touches Jeff. It seems like she could be doing it intentionally to upset him, but either way it turns out those two are dating now and arguing about whether or not to keep it a secret from Victor.
They drink and reminisce and talk shit. Touchy subjects are brought up, raw feelings come out and Victor goes way too far. It gave me horrible recollections of doing something like that without even the excuse of alcohol. So I found it relatable.
Cusack is casual enough about his villainy as “Miller” that it almost qualifies as subtle within his body of work. He’s not a mastermind, he’s just some hedge fund dude or something and he has a mime-like pasty face and a headband that Victor says makes him look like a roadie for Metallica. For much of the movie he hangs out in the woods on the edge of panic because he can’t find the money and doesn’t know what to do. When he injures and then shoots a cop, both incidents seem to be instinctive and sort of accidental, and he seems to be upset about it. But I guess he gets over it because then he starts shooting at them with a sniper rifle.
Coltrane is pretty good. His nasal, Taylor-Lautnerian voice makes him feel less Hollywood, more real than you’d usually get in this story. When he hears the plan to take the money and basically says you guys can do what you want, I’m getting the fuck away from here it feels more like a normal person doing the safest thing than a movie hero taking a moral stand.
I recognized Fitzgerald from Scream (only seen the first season but it’s the rare thing I might call a guilty pleasure) and she’s pretty good on that, but this is a much more complex and impressive performance. She’s fun and lovable, but secretly dealing with problems that eventually bleed out to the surface and turn her into kind of a wreck. By the time she finds the money and decides to take it she’s pretty much had it with dudes and feels justified in fucking them over. I like this, because I can imagine a movie where one of the males pushes the trio into this dangerous plan and she reluctantly goes along with it. That movie seems totally generic, but this… How often does a woman get to be the unhinged one who pushes the group of friends into crimes they aren’t prepared for, the Larenz Tate in MENACE II SOCIETY, the Tupac in JUICE? There’s Latifah in SET IT OFF, but she’s influencing other women, not men.
Lynn becomes increasingly stressed and bitter under this pressure, snapping at Jeff and Victor. She would be terrible to be around, but I think her complaints are very reasonable. She’s certainly an in-it-only-for-herself anti-hero, not the selfless type we would hold up as a role model, but her motivations make her sympathetic at least in the manner of a good villain.
So it’s kind of a neat trick that it opens with flash forward to the end. Out of context I assumed she was a Final Girl and he’s complimenting her on having survived this long. In context she’s not that far off from being the bad guy at that point.
There’s a popular and understandable attitude that it’s bad when the lead woman in a movie is a terrible person, especially when the less-bad people in the cast are men. The idea is that it promotes derogatory stereotypes and does the cause no good. I’m sure that in an alternate dimension where people knew this movie existed and then watched it, some would be bothered by its portrayal of a greedy woman. I get that, but I also think that flawed and complicated characters are often the most interesting, and that the great women actors don’t get to play those anywhere approaching as often as men do. That’s why a Charlize-Theron-in-YOUNG-ADULT or even a Frances-McDormand-in-THREE-BILLBOARDS really stands out.
This is obviously not on that level, but I think McKee is doing something subtle and interesting in his exploration of gender. Lynn is outwardly emotional and, some would say, hysterical, while Jeff in particular stays very calm and reasonable, knows to shut up and be reassuring. That’s a familiar female-male dynamic, at least for me growing up. And the male tendency is to see it as the woman being crazy. In fact, a breaking point for Lynn is when she overhears Victor telling Jeff, “This is what happens when you follow around a fucking crazy woman.”
In the context of “she’s trying to steal a million dollars from a dude with a gun” the description is accurate. In the context of their lifelong friendship, though, it proves he hasn’t made the effort to understand her point of view. She has a crucial monologue (crucial monologue spoiler) about the three of them as kids being equals until she grew boobs and was sentenced to from then on being the girl who the two boys fight about who gets to fuck. They never seem like total assholes, but they’ve exhibited this shit all throughout the movie, through their macho competitiveness, sometimes judging her for her sexuality and not treating her opinions seriously. We’ve seen enough to know she has a point.
Jeff seems more in the right than Victor, but it’s mostly his presentation. After all he’s the one who ignores Lynn’s plan about the safest escape route, tricks her into going the way she didn’t want to and then tries to laugh it off as no big deal when she realizes it. If we’re gonna judge their morals obviously Lynn has turned out to be the worst, but she wins the argument about their friendship.
Yes, BLOOD MONEY is another home video John Cusack thriller experience, but it’s not a blot on the McKee filmography. It may not be the visionary work we hoped would follow THE WOMAN, but it subtly reflects the artist’s voice while doing its job as a solid suspense thriller.