Director Antoni Stutz intends his first feature to be a twisty, moody modern film noir in the tradition of the Coen brothers’ “Blood Simple.” But though it’s slickly made and boasts a formidable cast, the picture falls way short of its models.
The screenplay by Stutz and Ashley Scott Meyers focuses on Sarah Johnson (Haley Woods) and Billy Brody (Josh Henderson), a couple of down-on-their-luck L.A. folk who hatch a con when Sarah’s roommate dies of a drug overdose. The dead girl had recently gotten a letter naming her the heir to her uncle’s estate in Texas, and since Sarah’s virtually her twin, Billy suggests that she impersonate her and claim Zackary Niles’s inheritance. Once they arrive in little Tremo, however, they find the going difficult. Billy doesn’t trust the dead man’s sleazy lawyer Cameron Brogden (Aidan Quinn), and the local sheriff (Beau Bridges), who happens to be Cameron’s brother, suspects that Billy and Sarah are up to no good. When an autopsy reveals that the uncle’s death was murder rather than an accident, the waters get muddier and muddier.
And that’s only the tip of an iceberg of deceit and calculation so large that it could swallow the entire North Sea. Among the additional shards the script throws into the mix are a scummy L.A. drug dealer named Romero (Crispian Belfrage) who’s followed Billy and Sarah to Tremo; the Brogdens’ mother Belle (Lorna Raver), who has secrets in her past; another lawyer appropriately called Sly (Philip Lenkowsky); a nasty storekeeper and his equally nasty son; and a DVD that shows Zackary to have had an interest in young men. ln Stutz and Meyers’s construction, these elements, and more besides, fit together eventually, but very implausibly indeed. The result is like a puzzle with too many pieces that, when assembled, reveal little of interest.
The cast respond to all this in one of two ways. Quinn and Bridges play to the rafters, with exaggerated accents and lots of scenery-chewing. Most of the supporting cast follow suit. But they’re all pikers compared to Belfrage, who goes so far overboard that an evil cackle is the only thing missing. By contrast Henderson is so sullenly low-key that he’s nothing but brooding emptiness, while Woods veers between sweetness and hysteria. Technically the picture has professional polish, but Gregg Easterbrook’s cinematography overdoes the noirishly lurid light-and-shade, and Jeffrey Coulter’s score obvious in its use of shock effects and way too loud. Maybe it was a mistake to allow one of the producers to serve as the composer; it seems as though he decided to make his creative contribution way too prominent.
Ultimately the problem with “Rushlights” is that it’s an example of narrative overkill, taking too many turns along the way. Just because you have an idea for yet another plot twist doesn’t mean you should toss it into the mix. By the last reel the picture already become overstuffed with zigzags and improbabilities, but Stutz nevertheless offers up still more “shocking” revelations in yet another climax. The result is a genre exercise that shows some promise, but descends from pleasant obfuscation into patent absurdity.