Hey, have you ever wanted to watch a movie that features nearly every single genre at once? If so, I’ve got just the film for you! It’s called In the Shadow of the Moon, and it’s a frenetic mash-up of sci-fi, mystery, horror, and action. The only things it’s missing are a musical number or two and a rom-com subplot. This ambitious, sometimes ridiculous experience takes big risks – some of which pay off, some of which don’t. It’s a cop thriller, a time-bending saga, a gore-soaked splatterfest. It rides on a wave of goofiness mixed with earnestness, and it’s hard not to appreciate something like that.
It’s 1988, and Philadelphia beat cop Thomas Lockhart (Boyd Holbrook) dreams of becoming a hotshot detective. The kind of detective you see in the movies – standing around in the rain, wearing cool jackets, shining flashlights into the darkest of dark spots. One wild night, Lockhart gets caught up in an extremely perplexing mystery: several people in various parts of the city inexplicably die in the same way – their brains literally liquefy in their skulls, causing blood to gush from their ears, eyes, nose, and mouths. It’s gruesome stuff – and made all the disturbing by the fact that no one can figure out how the murders were committed.
Despite the unexplained nature of the crimes, a suspect is soon identified – a young woman (Cleopatra Coleman) running all over town. Lockhart eventually catches up with the woman after a thrilling chase, but before he can get any answers, the suspect is obliterated by a subway train. Still – case closed, right? Lockhart gets promoted to a detective, and his brother-in-law (Michael C. Hall), another cop, gets bumped up to lieutenant.
But nine years later, the mystery woman is somehow back, alive and well – and killing again. This unexplained resurrection sends Lockhart off the deep end, and it doesn’t take him very long before he develops a wild theory about what’s going on here. Lockhart’s deduction understandably makes everyone around him think he’s gone completely insane, but he refuses to let up. And every nine years, the killer returns.
Director Jim Mickle, the filmmaker behind the exceedingly impressive indie flicks Mulberry Street, Stake Land, We Are What We Are, Cold in July, and more, excels at crashing all these genres together. He’s working with a much bigger budget than usual, and it shows – there are numerous car chases which seem genuinely dangerous and real. Mickle’s direction also shines when he focuses in on the more horror-tinged elements – there are many, many shots of gory dead bodies here. And it all looks appropriately stylish via cinematographer David Lanzenberg‘s lens – the DOP favors cold blues and harsh arc lighting.
But In the Shadow of the Moon starts to sag beneath the weight of its ambition. Screenwriters Gregory Weidman and Geoff Tock have a wealth of inventive ideas, some of which pack a punch when held up against our current times. But the writers never seem fully confident in the story they’re telling, and as determined as the film’s script is to defy expectations, one can’t just help that the writers had settled in on a specific genre and stuck with it.
It doesn’t help that Holbrook makes for such a bland lead. The actor never asserts himself in such a demanding role, and when he’s called on to land big, emotional moments, he fails, and noticeably so. Hall, who is usually a dependable actor, is also oddly weak, dipping in and out of a Southern accent that sounds wildly out of place in the Philadelphia setting. Thankfully, Coleman has a real screen presence as the mysterious, resurfacing killer. She relies primarily on physicality here, letting her body language sell the various emotional states she’s in.
Eventually, all of the many genres here come together for a big, bold climax that somehow simultaneously works…and doesn’t. The raw power of the story Mickle and company are telling is impossible to deny, but In the Shadow of the Moon doesn’t know how to leave well enough alone, and tacks on a heavy-handed, exposition-laden bit of narration, as if the movie is literally screaming “Get it?!” into our ears. In the Shadow of the Moon is a film doing battle with itself – it wants to be all things to all people, but sometimes, less is more.
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10
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