An accidental death leads to continuing tragedy in “A Violent Separation,” a tale of familial trouble in America’s heartland that’s actually quite well-made but too slow and inert to carry much emotional pull.
Michael Arkof’s script centers on two very dissimilar brothers. Ray Young (Ben Robson) is the troublesome one, a rough, scruffy, bearded womanizer who drinks way too much and has a propensity for getting into bar fights. His brother Norman (Brenton Thwaites) is a callow straight-arrow type who has trouble even talking to girls and has become a deputy in the local police force.
Ray and Norman are involved with the Campbell sisters, Abbey (Claire Holt) and Frances (Alycia Debnam-Carey). They live with their father Tom (Gerald McRaney), who’s suffering from emphysema. Ray and Abbey have a fraught relationship: he apparently feels that the fact that she’s a single mother gives him license to fool around even in front of her. By contrast Norman can hardly even ask Frances to dance, and he seems oblivious to her suggestions that they get a little closer.
Matters come to a head between Ray and Abbey as they drive home one night through a remote lakeside area. She produces a gun and demands that he teach her to shoot, and in the ensuing struggle it goes off, killing her. Ray disposes of the body, then calls on Norman to help him. Norman does, using his lawman’s skills, though his canny boss Sheriff Quinn (Ted Levine) senses that something isn’t quite right with the scenario he stages to protect his brother, a feeling that’s only increased when Quinn discusses his suspicions with grizzled Bob (Cotton Yancey).
Things deteriorate between the brothers as the investigation drags on. Ray is more and more racked with guilt, and Norman’s worries about his involvement make him increasingly nervous. But matters grow truly dangerous when Riley (Peter Michael Goetz), the old coot living near the lake, makes a discovery that takes him to Tom. Soon he’s certain that his daughter’s death points toward Ray, and Frances begins to look askance at Norman, too. Inevitably, the situation does not turn out well.
Arkof and the Goetz brothers do their best to give this rural downer a Shakespearean sense of foreboding, but it comes across more as grim lethargy. That’s not the fault of the cast. One can expect solid work from veterans like Levine and McRaney, and they deliver; but the younger actors are strong as well, with Robson having the showier fraternal role but Thwaites convincing as the weak-willed Norman. Debnam-Carey and Holt are good as well, as are the contributions from production designer Frank Zito, cinematographer Sean Odea and composer Evan Goldman, though Kindra Marra’s editing contributes to the ponderousness.
“A Violent Separation” can be compared to Alex Pettyfer’s recent directorial debut “Back Roads.” Both deal with dysfunctional heartland families, both end in despair, and both wind up more melodramatic than convincing. While it boasts a good cast and some strong moments, the Goetz brothers’ film remains a noir that, in the final analysis, isn’t quite dark or surprising enough.