Beneath the Leaves, 2019.
Directed by Adam Marino.
Starring Mira Sorvino, Kristoffer Polaha, Doug Jones, Christopher Masterson, Melora Walters, and Paul Sorvino.
James Whitley, a deranged, warm-eyed psychopath, kidnaps four small-town boys. But his grotesque pursuit to reunite orphaned children with their deceased birth parents is gridlocked when the boys escape and he is arrested. Twenty years later, Whitley flees during a prison fire and decides to see his mission through.
A troubled detective hunts a psychopath with a bizarre modus operandi. It’s a familiar set up. In fact, Beneath the Leaves echoes countless other serial killer police procedurals from Kiss the Girls to Manhunter and ten more titles you can probably name off the top of your head. What lifts this film a touch above the pile of VOD-thriller dreck is generally solid performances, a handful of neat scenes, and a few interesting quirks written into the by-the-numbers plot.
In a rare make-up-free performance, Doug Jones (The Shape of Water, Hellboy) shines as Whitley, a soothing, almost tender, psychopath obsessed with reuniting orphaned children with their deceased birth parents in the only way possible. This lands him in a prison that he breaks out of and burns down. We learn that Whitley and his sister were themselves abused as kids; they eventually burned down their house with their abusive father locked inside. Years on, Whitley continues burning buildings and killing parents. His sister… Well, I won’t spoil it.
Detectives Brian Larson (Kristoffer Polaha) and Erica Shotwell (Mira Sorvino) chase after Whitley following his escape. But after discovering Brian was one of the first orphans Whitley kidnapped, the police captain (Paul Sorvino) pulls Brian off the case, claiming he’s too personally involved. Brian refuses to drop the case, however, and continues to pursue Whitley. Off the bat, none of the police officers feel like police officers. One looks like an acid burnout/ Charles Manson cosplayer; thankfully, the film makes light of this by calling out that he’s been undercover too long. Neither Polaha nor either of the Sorvinos plays particularly convincing detectives, but as actors they all show a decent rapport with one another.
Director Adam Marino, in tandem with cinematographer Chaz Olivier, keeps the film moving with solid visuals, especially during the opening scene where the children burn their house down and a police raid where the camera tracks Erica in an unbroken shot until she clashes with the suspect. There’s also some grisly fingernail-related imagery that works on a visceral, gore level.
The film touches on themes around childhood trauma. Brian and Erica’s back-stories both stem from a kind of childhood tragedy. Whitley kills ostensibly because he wishes to deliver foster children to their real parents. In this way, writers Adam Marino, Naman Barsoom, and Daniel Wallner give the film a consistent through-line. But these ideas generally serve as packaging for a semi-effective chiller that does not overstay its welcome. The film includes a tagged on conclusion that either teases a sequel or works as a clever – albeit implausible – ending note. On the whole, Beneath the Leaves functions as a mean little thriller with a tight enough plot, a brief but standout performance by Doug Jones, and some nifty added wrinkles in what is largely a straight genre exercise. I would be interested to see what Marino and co. would come up with, given a slightly expanded budget and a weirder concept to play with.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★