IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON is the latest from director Jim Mickle, whose work I really dig – my favorites are the Joe Lansdale crime story COLD IN JULY and the horror remake WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, but also check out MULBERRY ST., STAKE LAND and Hap & Leonard. This is a little different for him – it seems much more expensive than all his other movies, it has some science fiction involved, and it’s credited to other writers (Gregory Weidman & Geoffrey Tock of the tv shows Limitless and Zoo). It’s a Netflix production that played Fantastic Fest in September, then went straight to streaming.
It opens five years from now in the aftermath of what looks like a massive terrorist attack. We just get a glimpse of the damage before it skips back to 1988 (the year DIE HARD came out) and intercuts between a few different Philadelphians – a bus driver, a fry cook, a concert pianist – all of whom get sudden nosebleeds, then bleed from the ears and eyes, then fall dead.
Beat cop Tom Lockhart (Boyd Holbrook, LOGAN) hears his beeper go off as he’s making breakfast for his massively pregnant wife (Rachel Keller, Fargo season
1 2), so he has to regretfully run off. You know the drill. He and his partner Maddox (Bokeem Woodbine, WISHMASTER 2) report to the pileup that happened when the bus driver went down. An overachiever hoping to be promoted to detective, Lockhart oversteps his bounds and discovers a weird mark on the driver’s neck missed by the actual detective on the scene, his uptight brother-in-law Holt (Michael C. Hall, PAYCHECK).
It sort of becomes a friendly competition between the two as Lockhart goes tenaciously out of line, checking out the other accident sites, asking questions at the lab, getting ahead of Holt and having a weird encounter with a suspect, a young woman in a hoodie (Cleopatra Coleman, STEP UP REVOLUTION) who knows his name and says some strange things to him before getting hit by a subway.
And then he finds out his wife is in labor. Long day. FIRST ACT SPOILER COMING UP. There are complications, and this is a movie so that’s not gonna turn out to be nothing. We didn’t see much of his wife Jean before this, but the love that spreads across her face when she sees him arrive in the middle of her painful labor is profound. The baby makes it. She doesn’t. I think I was in a vulnerable emotional state at the time, but this scene made me cry. And then it’s 1997.
Ah ha! It seemed like it was gonna be an ‘80s period piece, taking full advantage of vintage cop mustaches. But here we are in the year of Ally McBeal, FACE/OFF, and of course “Candle in the Wind ’97.” It’s exactly nine years later, in fact, because it’s his daughter Amy (Quincy Kirkwood)’s birthday. There are protests all over town on the anniversary of the notorious incident where a still unknown woman of color was killed by a subway while being chased by an undisclosed white police officer who was not only not punished, but promoted to detective. (Oh no, Lockhart. Also, congratz I guess?)
But that’s only the beginning of the craziness because 1) people start bleeding again and 2) he sees the woman in the hoodie again. The dead one.
Pretty soon we start to figure out the structural gimmick here. Every nine years he encounters the woman again as he gets closer to figuring out why. Themes pop up a little bit here and there until there are enough pieces to put together. At the beginning of each chapter we find him more obsessed, more seemingly crazy, more shaggy and dirty, more down on his luck. He basically transforms into Michael Shannon. (Meanwhile, Woodbine as Maddox goes from balding Al Powell type to cool guy in a track suit.)
I really like Holbrook in this, but from reviews I’ve read he seems to not really click with some people. Same thing with THE PREDATOR. I don’t know, I like him as a character actor in stuff like A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES and JANE GOT A GUN, and I like when a guy like that then gets to be the center of a movie. And he really chews into this one. Having him instead of Ryan Reynolds or whoever makes it feel a little off-kilter in a good way.
This is definitely a more complicated narrative than we’re used to seeing from Mickle, but it’s far from empty spectacle. Behind all the contrivance there are layers of meaning. There’s a deeply upsetting undercurrent of hopelessness, since he’s sacrificed his relationship with his daughter, his career and his happiness for this obsession that in a more traditional story would be rewarded with vindication when he finally solves the mystery. But we suspect pretty early that what he’s trying to stop is an attempt to save the world. And then when he gets on board with that it’s hard to be comfortable because they talk of it in terms of destroying ideas. It’s basically a version of the “killing baby Hitler” plan that assumes it would be much more complicated than just killing the one baby. You also gotta kill everybody that would’ve influenced the baby otherwise it’s gonna be some other fuckin baby, you know?
And then there’s the inevitable doom of the grave mistake he made in the past that he now knows will affect his future. This is an extreme version of the “stop and smell the flowers” adage. He knows for sure the limited time he has to spend with a loved one, and he has to try to make the best of it.
I’m still bummed we didn’t get to see GODFORSAKEN, a crime drama Mickle was going to direct in 2016, with Sylvester Stallone playing “an aging ex-con who seeks vengeance after his estranged son is killed.” Stallone even worked on the script but it lost funding when he backed out eight days before it was supposed to film. (Sadly his next movie that was more than a cameo ended up being ESCAPE PLAN 2.) That seems like a great lead actor for Mickle, and a great director for Stallone. But life goes on. This is good too.
I do think getting away from the simplicity and intimacy of Mickle’s other movies makes this one less powerful, but it’s also cool to see him working on one with such gigantic scope, and big car crashes and shit. When he started he was literally chasing ambulances to get them in his movie, so good for him. I look forward to whatever he does next, big or small.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.