Tag Archives: B-

THE CLOVEHITCH KILLER

Producer: Duncan Skiles, Andrew Kortschak, Cody Ruder, Walter Kortschak and Christopher Ford
Director: Duncan Skiles
Writer: Christopher Ford
Stars: Dylan McDermott, Charlie Plummer, Samantha Mathis, Madisen Beaty, Lance Chantiles-Wertz, Brenna Sherman, Emma Jones, Jonathan Riggs, Kat Perez, Janet Scott and Mark Nash
Studio: IFC Midnight

B-

Anyone who fondly recalls Joseph Ruben’s fine 1987 thriller “The Stepfather” (which, regrettably, spawned an inferior sequel two years later, and a mediocre remake in 2009) will probably enjoy “The Clovehitch Killer,” which recycles its major themes in a clever if slow-moving fashion. It also boasts a couple of impressive performances by Charlie Plummer and Dylan McDermott.

In the film, directed by Duncan Skiles from a script by Christopher Ford (”Robot & Frank,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming”), Plummer plays Tyler Burnside, a teen whose Kentucky family’s life centers on church and what might be called social service. That’s especially true of his dad Don (McDermott), a gregarious local handyman who also leads Tyler’s scout troupe. At home devoted mom Cindy (Samantha Mathis) takes care of the housework, her husband and son, and little daughter Susie (Brenna Sherman).

Tyler’s a good kid—indeed, almost frighteningly good and anxious about letting people, and especially Don, down—but he still has the usual teen needs, and late one night he borrows his dad’s truck for a tryst with pretty classmate Amy (Emma Jones). But as they snuggle, they find a photo of a woman in bondage scrunched on the inside of the seat. Amy presumes it’s Tyler’s and tells his schoolmates about his peculiar tastes, turning off even his best buddy Billy (Lance Chantiles-Wertz), a prim, fastidious kid who tolerates no deviancy and further blackens his reputation.

Knowing that the photo wasn’t his, Tyler begins to suspect that it belongs to his father, and grows increasingly interested in the tool shed Don keeps locked in the backyard. Breaking in, he finds a stash of hidden bondage magazines, as well as a packet of disturbing photos, leading him to suspect that Don might be the notorious killer who broke into ten women’s houses a decade earlier and tied them up with clove hitch knots before suffocating them; thus the murderer’s nickname.

Tyler joins forces with Kassi (Madisen Beaty), a girl considered the ultimate outsider and known for her fascination with the killer, to investigate further; she laughs off his suspicion about Don, but when he decides to look into the crawlspace beneath the family house, what he finds makes him even more distraught. Don, however, tearfully takes the boy into his confidence, with an explanation for everything: there is, he points out, a much more plausible suspect to explain a spree that had ended ten years ago. He then arranges for Tyler to go off to a leadership camp and for Cindy and Susie to go visit her relatives, leaving him free to…

Well, what he does is something viewers should find out for themselves. The same is true for how Tyler and Kassi react, and it is here that Ford and Skiles take a considerable risk, following events as they unfold from one perspective and then abruptly shifting back in time to portray them from another. There are, to be sure, problems with their method, and it’s not the only point at which the film stumbles a bit: one can certainly raise logical and psychological questions that you might feel it doesn’t satisfactorily address.

But while all the details might not add up, the overall effect is grimly compelling, because Plummer and McDermott offer such fine performance. The latter has the showier role, and McDermott seizes on the chance to balance an ostensibly jovial exterior with sinister undertones. But the film would not work were not Plummer—whose work in “Lean on Pete” was so remarkable—equally fine. He conveys Tyler’s shyness and fear, but also the boy’s underlying strength. It’s a subtle, nuanced turn. Beaty and Mathis both offer strong support, as do the rest of the cast, while production designer Latisha Duarte and costumer Jami Villiers Duarte fashion a convincing sense of place on a limited budget and cinematographer Luke McCoubrey captures it all simply and straightforwardly. Editors Megan Brooks and Andrew Hasse manage the last-act gyrations fairly dexterously.

“The Clovehitch Killer” burns slowly, but its restrained approach creates an unsettling mood and generates some genuine chills along the way, thanks to its two fine lead performances.

WIDOWS

Producer: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Steve McQueen and Arnon Milchan
Director: Steve McQueen
Writer: Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn
Stars: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Bryan Tyree Henry, Danial Kaluuya, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson, Garrett Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Jackie Weaver, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Lukas Haas, Matt Walsh, Kevin J. O'Connor, Coburn Goss and Michael Harney
Studio: 20th Century Fox

B-

Like a sort of anti-“Ocean’s 8,” Steve McQueen’s long-awaited follow-up to “12 Years a Slave” is about an elaborate heist carried out by a group of women. But “Widows” is far from a happy-go-lucky lark. Loosely based by McQueen and Gillian Flynn on a British television series written by the prolific Lynda La Plante, it’s a dark, convoluted tale of crime, corruption, and abuse that’s really too overstuffed for its own good but bolstered by a committed cast.

Though LaPlante’s version was set back in 1983, the script by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) updates the plot to contemporary Chicago. That’s one of the problems with the film, since a major element of the plot involves the city’s politics, which frankly seem more reflective of the situation in the seventies than the present day: Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the son of long-time alderman Tom (Robert Duvall), is trying to win his father’s seat against black neighborhood leader (and drug lord, it appears) Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry).

That story thread links up with the main storyline, involving Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), a master thief who, along with his confederates Gunner (Jon Bernthal) and Perelli (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), is plotting a big score worth a couple of million dollars. It goes south, however, and their van explodes in a hail of gunfire with police, apparently killing the three men and destroying all the money. It leaves the three widows—Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis), Linda Parelli (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki) not just without the cash to live on, but in imminent danger.

That’s because the stolen money belonged to Jamal, who needs it to fund his campaign. He threatens Veronica, ordering her to pay back the cash or else. She calls a meeting with Linda, who’s lost her store because of her husband’s gambling debts, and Alice, who’s being prodded by her mother (Jacki Weaver) to take up a career as a paid escort, and suggests that they pull off a heist Harry had meticulously planned in a notebook that was one of the few things he left her. It involves stealing a horde of cash from the Mulligan family mansion/campaign center—money Tom had accumulated over his years in office.

The three women agree to attempt the job, enlisting a fourth, Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a hairdresser who’s also Linda’s babysitter, to be their getaway driver, and pumping David (Lukas Hass), a real estate man who’s one of Alice’s clients, for information. Meanwhile Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), Jamals’ loose cannon brother and chief enforcer, takes action on his own, among other things targeting the Rawlings family chauffeur, Bash (Garret Dillahunt). Other characters fly in and out of the complicated plot, most notably Amanda (Carrie Coon), the widow of Coburn (Jimmy Nunn), yet another of Harry’s old gang, whom Veronica approaches for advice—only to find out something she might prefer not to know and her late husband.

With an implausible last-act twist that requires a bevy of flashbacks to explain, as well as a very busy heist scene as the women pull off the job at the Mulligan mansion and others intervene to foil it, “Widows” is convoluted, but in the end pretty simple. Based on misdirection from the very start, it winds up a flashy but essentially empty exercise, even though it clearly wants to say something about how badly women continue to be treated, especially by their spouses.

And yet it’s easy to go along for the bumpy ride, in spite of some muddled work by McQueen, because the cast is so strong. Davis delivers yet another powerhouse performance, and Rodriguez, Debicki and Erivo are not far behind. Predictably good supporting work comes from Farrell, Neeson, Henry, Haas and Duvall, and though Kaluuya overplays the gangsta villainy to the point that you’re just waiting for him to get a well-deserved comeuppance, they rest of the cast does what’s required of them expertly.

The technical work is topnotch as well, with both Adam Stockhausen’s production design and Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography first-rate, and though Joe Walker’s editing lacks complete clarity in some of the more complicated sequences, Hans Zimmer’s score is better than usual.

So “Widows” is a mixed bag, but one in which the positive elements slightly outweigh the negative ones. Very slightly, it should be emphasized.