Producers: Jason Blum, Alix Madigan and Christopher Tricarico Director: Veena Sud Screenplay: Veena Sud Cast: Mireille Enos, Peter Sarsgaard, Joey King, Cas Anvar, Devery Jacobs, Dani Kind, Nicholas Lea and Patti Kim Distributor: Amazon Studios
Smart people act in extremely stupid ways throughout this English-language adaptation of Sebastian Ko’s 2015 German film “Wir Monster” by Veena Sud, best-known for developing the AMC series “The Killing” from its Danish original and, more recently, overseeing the Quibi series “The Stranger.” If you’re willing to set aside the characters’ foolishness, which frankly becomes increasingly aggravating, you might be able to appreciate the efforts of Sud and her cast to put the material across. But even if you do, you’ll regret having tried when the final twist—which you’ll undoubtedly have considered far in advance but rejected as absurd—comes to pass.
Mireille Enos (the star of “The Killing”) and Peter Sarsgaard play Rebecca and Jay, the separated parents of teen daughter Kayla (Joey King); she’s a straight-laced lawyer, he a musician. Though he’s left the family home for an apartment in the city, Jay’s still part of Kayla’s life, and has agreed to chauffeur her over the icy roads to a dance class. On the way home they come upon her friend Brittany (Devery Jacobs) along the road, and offer her a ride.
In the back seat the girls exhibit a bit of irritation toward one another, especially when Brittany flirts a bit with Jay, but clamber out together when Brittany asks Jay to stop so she can pee in the woods. When they’re slow in getting back Jay goes looking for them; he finds Kayla, distraught and alone, on a bridge, and she confesses that they had an argument and she pushed her friend over the edge, sending her into the river below. Jay looks for the body, but finds nothing, and frantically convinces his daughter to lie, agreeing to say that they’d never seen Brittany at all. When Rebecca learns what happened, she’s understandably distressed but goes along with the lie as well.
Of course, finding themselves in such a stressful situation, they act guilty as sin when Brittany’s father Sam Ifrani (Cas Anvar) shows up looking for his daughter. Their attitude makes him all the more suspicious, and eventually he’ll call in the cops. But the two investigating detectives, Barnes (Nicholas Lea) and Tagata (Patti Kim), focus their attention on Ifrani, a Pakistani who—they assume—might have been responsible for Brittany’s disappearance. Jay and Rebecca are more than happy to nurture that supposition. (The script’s assumption that prejudice would immediately arise in such a case is, of course, deplorable but perhaps credible.)
Meanwhile the family unit continues to crack. Jay and Rebecca wonder how Kayla could have done such a thing, especially after she admits that she intended to kill Brittany. Have they raised an evil child? Or was she so emotionally wrecked by their separation that she snapped? Are they the really responsible parties?
Well, perhaps not for murder, but certainly for the string of dumb choices they now make. Jay has foolishly kept Brittany’s phone (“So I made one mistake!” he screams at Rebecca, though it’s only the latest of many), and their desperate effort to get rid of it leads them to even more despicable choices when Sam confronts them again. Then comes that idiotic final revelation, which is meant to make our hope for humanity disappear completely but will merely trigger your disgust at the thought that the filmmakers believed that viewers wouldn’t instantly begin calculating how many illogicalities it revealed in what had preceded.
The drab, grey, endlessly chilly nature of the goings-on is certainly captured in the production design by Elisa Sauve and Peter Wunstorf’s cinematography, and Tamar-kali’s score adds to the sense of unrelieved gloom. So do Sud’s pretentiously ponderous direction and Philip Fowler’s deliberate editing, against which the frenetic performances of Enos, Sarsgaard, King and Anvar stand out sharply but provide no relief.
“The Lie” might remind you of Oren Moverman’s “The Dinner” (2017), which also involved parents trying to cover up their children’s heinous crime. That movie at least tried to add some satirical social commentary to the mix—none too successfully, it must be admitted—but this one plays the story in deadly earnest throughout. Despite the efforts of a dedicated cast to convince us of the grim power of this family’s moral collapse, the ludicrousness of the plot, capped by a head-slapping final twist, sends it totally off the rails.