South of Heaven, 2021.
Directed by Aharon Keshales.
Starring Jason Sudeikis, Evangeline Lilly, Shea Whigham, Jeremy Bobb, Amaury Nolasco, Michael Paré, Mike Colter, Tina Parker, and Thaddeus J. Mixson.
Convicted felon Jimmy gets early parole after serving twelve years for armed robbery. Upon his release, he vows to give Annie, his childhood love, now dying from cancer, the best last year of her life – unfortunately it’s not that simple.
The legend himself Quentin Tarantino proclaimed Aharon Keshales’ sophomore narrative feature Big Bad Wolves as the best film of 2013, and while I’m not going to argue that sentiment (for one, I have yet to see it), the praise seems to have gone to his head. Collaborating on a script once again with regular partner Navot Papushado (alongside Kai Mark, this time), South of Heaven starts off promising and strongly driven by characterization before the purpose of the sidewinding story being told slips away to a degree where a third act staging of violence and multiple shootouts comes across entirely superfluous and pointless, no matter how entertaining it is watching Jason Sudeikis mow down generic henchman with an assortment of firearms shot as a single-take home invasion.
Jason Sudeikis is Jimmy Ray, begging to be let out of a correctional facility based on his good behavior and time served so that he can spend time with what little his girlfriend Annie (Evangeline Lilly) has left before she departs from lung cancer. Opening with an unbroken shot of Jimmy delivering a speech regarding his case, it’s clear that the funnyman is more than up to the task of tackling such a dramatic character and that Aharon Keshales knows how to bring forth that emotion. On some level, there’s a case to be made that South of Heaven is worth watching for Jason Sudeikis’ performance alone.
It’s also evident that Jimmy genuinely has no interest in returning to crime (when we learn what brought him to participate in an armed bank robbery, it lines up with the vibe that he is hardly a corrupt person and was caught up with a dangerous crowd) or even hanging around friends (Jeremy Bobb’s Frank, a criminal turned legitimate businessman) that could slightly tempt him down the wrong path. That much is made clear when his crooked parole officer Schmidt (an immediately unlikable weasel played by Shea Whigham, currently on a hot streak in terms of impressionable turns) offers a chance at scoring some illegal cash on the side, which Jimmy politely declines. As a result, Schmidt resorts to the cliché of planting drugs on Jimmy forcing his hand into picking up a package.
Some aspects of the pickup go as planned; others don’t. What can be said is that an accidental dead body translates to a missing sum of $500,000, prompting Mike Colter’s career criminal Whit Price to announce his presence. Price also has unresolved business with Schmidt, leading to a confrontation between the two. Essentially, it leads to Price taking Annie hostage in return for the money that Jimmy sincerely has no idea of its whereabouts. In retaliation, he decides to kidnap Price’s son after school for his own bargaining currency.
At this point, South of Heaven shakes up its serious crime tone and looming death mood into something resembling a dark comedy that admirably also refuses to hide from the urgency and threat of the situation. Jimmy and young Tommy (Thaddeus J. Mixson) have their dynamic played for laughs (from the boy joking about potentially being touched by Jimmy or trying to run away, which results in a life scare presented as black humor). It’s as lighthearted as kidnapping can get, which also makes sense since Jimmy has no intentions of hurting a child and Jason Sudeikis’s natural comedic talent.
It’s also refreshing that Evangeline Lilly is not forced to play a crying damsel in distress, worried if she’s going to come out of this alive. Annie is as calm as can be, perhaps because she has already accepted her fate of death by cancer. There is also a sense of pure inner strength coming from within her. Nevertheless, she begins to bond with Price, who has a means of relating to what she is going through. Maybe the script will subvert genre conventions and find a resolution other than violence, which would have been excellent and appropriate for the themes addressed.
Throughout all of this, South of Heaven still occasionally seems confused (Annie mentions that she can’t be a part of Jimmy coming home late again every night, but later in the film says that he was a perfect man outside of one instance of crime). If anything, it feels like the script is trying a bit too hard to pull one over on the audience over and over. Such frustrations don’t last long, though, considering the filmmakers are invested in these characters (a good 30 minutes of the two-hour running time alone is utilized simply getting to know Jimmy and Annie).
With that in mind, it functions as a betrayal when the story turns to bloodshed. It’s also forced (even before peace is thrown out the window), which might be the biggest problem with South of Heaven; it starts from a place of earnest and devolves into routine revenge affairs, which is ironic considering how desperately Aharon Keshales wants this to be distinct and unpredictably gripping. Although, in a vacuum without context, Jason Sudeikis wielding guns is a raucous sight.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com