VOD Review: Shimmer Lake.
Netflix offers an inventive and enjoyable crime drama that has a few identity problems.
Shimmer Lake is Netflix’s latest self-produced feature film. While I didn’t love it as much as The Girl with All of the Gifts, it is a solid addition to the growing library of exclusives on the service. At heart a crime drama, it also has elements of a black comedy and features a unique narrative structure where the events of the crime unfold in reverse order. We start on Friday and witness the messy conclusion to a bank heist gone wrong, and then watch each previous day until we get to the actual robbery. I enjoyed the premise, the acting, and the plot structure but felt the film sometimes bites off more than it can chew.
Shimmer Lake (2017)
In a small lakeside town, everyone knows everyone. Several years earlier, a shocking crime claimed the life of a small child and sent the local football hero to prison. The crime also tainted the lives of many ordinary people and caused the young sheriff to view his community with suspicion. When the local bank is robbed, the sheriff must put the pieces together and untangle the web connecting many in the community to both crimes.
Events unfolding backwards gives this crime drama an interesting twist: we know how things end and who is involved, but we have no clue why or how they fit together. As such, we have a narrative where the events of each day gain new significance as we learn new facts. Several times, the new information totally changes your interpretation of the events in the future you know are going to happen.
The director/writer Oren Uziel mostly handles this trope cleverly. Each day is titled, pointing you to the major event and character who will be featured but Uziel is happy to throw twists and turns into the mix that subvert expectations. You begin the day with a major question from the previous, but find that past events completely rewrite the hypothesis you were working on. The film carefully doles out characters and new crimes such that you have to balance many threads. With the exception of the day of the heist, I loved the twists and found they really kept you guessing.
To sustain such a convoluted story, strong characters are essential. Shimmer Lake has a small but respectable cast that perform admirably. Mostly. The two standout performances come from Benjamin Walker (In the Heart of the Sea) who plays the jaded sheriff and Rainn Wilson (The Office) who plays his brother. We know that Wilson is somehow mixed up in the robbery and also in the tragedy that killed a young boy. He and Walker engage in a caustic game of cat and mouse where you SEE aspects of their family troubles mixed with their current situation as cop and robber, and it sheds light on the underlying dysfunction of the whole town.
Error of Comedy.
Where the acting falters is in the inclusion of comedic elements. There is a bleak comedy of errors angle to the movie that is satisfying, but the script also tries to sprinkle in overt comedy that falls flat. When the comedy arises from the shabby nature of the town and the crime, it feels organic. Rainn Wilson, John Michael Higgins as the bank owner, and Adam Pally as the pathetic deputy all provide levity that feels earned. Unfortunately the script also has two bumbling FBI agents, played by the talented Rob Corddry and Ron Livingston, who both seem to be working on the idea that this film is a true comedy. Their banter is out of place and disrupts the tone of the film.
Nature of the Beast.
My biggest reservation with Shimmer Lake is that the final day feels forced. It’s not an inherently bad ending sequence, but in a movie full of twists it doesn’t feel set up in a way that jibes with the rest of the plot. One reason for this is the nature of heist movies, another is that the narrative structure runs out of room to maneuver.
The heist genre is infamous for having sudden role reversals or motivational switches as well as several red herrings. Shimmer Lake tends to accomplish those aspects through cleverly changing your interpretation with new information. On the final day there’s no more time to dole out information, so the final reveal feels like its dropped on your head. It is a double edged sword, where more information would have undermined the mystery but made the final day more compelling. Oren Uziel kept the plates spinning as long as he could, but the nature of the reverse narrative could only go so far.
Small Town Troubles.
Shimmer Lake is a unique entry into one of my favorite genres that is flawed but enjoyable. It has some parallels to other films but manages to be its own animal for better or worse. The trailer makes it seem more a dark comedy like Fargo, but it actually recreates the bleak small town vibe of inevitable ruin like A Simple Plan or many Stephen King stories (and I certainly noticed that the sheriff is reading a King novel during the heist!)
The acting is quite strong, even when the script is adding in forced levity. The innovative structure only becomes a liability at the very end, and even then I think it added to the overall experience in such a way that I wouldn’t have wanted it fundamentally changed. Just tweaked a little. If you’re a sucker for bank heist movies like I am, you’re going to find enough that is new and memorable in Shimmer Lake to overcome the few missteps. A solid movie from a first time director that has me excited for the type of movies Netflix is bringing to the screen.