[16 March 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The secret that has torn apart a once close knit family. A room in the brooding clan’s farmhouse that no one ever goes in. The seedy side of Smalltown USA. The distant father who’s unable to communicate with his angry and confused son. The former fling that’s now the voice of law and order in our hero’s humble hometown.
If all of these elements sound familiar, it’s because they are staples of the iconic indie thriller. Ever since David Lynch explored the dark underbelly of a little burg called Lumberton, directors have tried to imitate his mix of the common place and the corrupt. Lake City is just the latest example of such In the Bedroom tactics. In the sleepy, sometimes inert suspense saga, we get many of the archetypes that reinvented the genre—and that have more or less stunted it ever since.
Billy is in trouble. Seems a mysterious woman named Hope showed up with a knapsack full of drugs and a kid she claims is his, and then just disappeared. Now local drug thug Red is angry, and he wants either his dope or the $100,000 its worth. Naturally, he thinks Billy is in on the con.
Escaping to his mother’s house in Lake City, our hero and his underage charge pray they have managed to stay far outside of Red’s reach. Billy even tries to rekindle an old flame friendship with the town’s female sheriff. But when Hope makes another hasty appearance, things go from bad to deadly. It’s not long before the drug dealers are chasing Billy across his ancestral home, and his mother is doing everything she can to keep him safe.
Lake City lacks the one thing that makes all edge of your seat experiences viable: a reason to care. No matter the level of excellent acting skill proffered by Oscar winner Sissy Spacek (as the mother), Troy Garity (as Billy), Rebecca Romjin (as the recovering alcoholic sheriff), or child actor Colin Ford, this is a story we can’t become involved in. The entire history of this situation is shrouded in ambiguity, and first time feature filmmakers Hunter Hill and Perry Moore decide that the best way to handle such vagueness is to keep things even cloudier until the very last minute. We can infer a lot of spoiler-like things from our view within the circumstance, and because of such flagrant foreshadowing, many of the reveals are anti-climatic. As a result, nothing about Lake City appears new…or novel…or interesting.
Granted, Hill and Moore paint some absolutely gorgeous pictures. The camera captures the lush Virginia countryside in picture postcard perfection. Scenes of isolated contemplation, a character considering their plight against a sun-dappled backdrop should create all the mood and atmosphere a film needs. But Lake City keeps sliding into predictability, that is, when it isn’t shielding audiences from necessary interpersonal information.
We have to guess at relationships. The connection between Billy and Hope is a good example. They have an eight-year-old child together that our hero just found out about. He’s supposedly a musician. Did he meet her at a gig? Is she a groupie who showed up subsequently to preach paternity? We don’t know.
Similarly, the secret between Billy and his Mom is reduced to nothing more than a red herring. The loss of any loved one is impossible to bear, but this situation seems like a literal accident blown way out of proportion. It’s the kind of incident the Lifetime Channel gets far too much mileage out of day in and day out. Spacek and Garity do have the mandatory heart to heart, and tears do flow as the flashbacks finally fill us in. But instead of handling this material in such a stereotypical way, Hill and Moore should have tried to impose something original or unique onto the memory. Why make it the fulcrum that destroys everything? Besides, Spacek’s character seems to have lost a lot lately. What makes this incident more devastating than any of those?
Questions are never good for a thriller. They circumvent any sizzle or suspense you might build up. Even with iconic rocker Dave Matthews as a sleazeball criminal, there’s no juice here. When Momma handles the problematic drug deal, we get a gratuitous false ending that feels so final that the sudden switcheroo throws the entire experience off balance. Nothing like asking a viewer to reconfigure their entire perspective 10-minutes before the movie ends.
Similarly, the subplot involving Keith Carradine as a garage mechanic with a thing for Spacek goes absolutely nowhere. Yet every time he shows up, we’re supposed to be prepared for his hopeless romanticism to pay off. It doesn’t.
Perhaps Lake City‘s final fatal flaw is the indie ideal to go low key instead of high energy. Such shoe-gazing may give us some beautiful landscapes to ponder, but we want pulses racing from intrigue, not the verdant splendor of a mid-Fall valley. Hill and Moore find a few sequences of truth (though nothingL in the relationship between Billy and his newly discovered young son works at all) and you can’t help but feel the internal strife Spacek is suffering from. But Lake City can’t compete on the same level as similarly styled movies it clearly copies from.
Two decades ago, looking at the horrific truths buried within an idyllic setting seemed original and revisionist. Today, it’s a typical episode of Dateline. Hunter Hill and Perry Moore clearly have something to offer the motion picture artform. Next time, they should try for something a little less derivative.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/71433-lake-city/