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Crime and punishment – ‘South of Heaven’

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I’m a big fan of actors pushing their own personal envelopes. I like it when comedic actors go the dramatic route and I like it when actors known for their dramatic chops venture into the realm of comedy. As a firm believer that a good actor is a good actor, it’s nice to see performers stretch themselves.

Take Jason Sudeikis. He made his bones as a comic performer, taking a turn as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live” and following that with a number of film comedies. But it’s his recent work as the titular character “Ted Lasso” – a comedy, yes, but one with dramatic underpinnings – that has really shown the breadth of his performance potential. The dude has what it takes.

In the new film “South of Heaven,” directed by Aharon Keshales and co-written by Keshales, Navot Paspushado and Kai Mark, Sudeikis is given the opportunity to take things in a much more extreme direction. What we have here is a bizarro Texas noir, a story populated by ex-cons and current criminals, all of it driven by one man’s singular desire to do right by the woman he loves.

While there’s plenty to like here, the film is tonally inconsistent to a distracting degree, veering wildly from dramatic intensity to romance to sitcom-adjacent banter – the sort of movie that relies on a steady stream of coincidence to keep moving forward. The performances – led by Sudeikis – are legitimately strong, but the unsteady narrative foundation undermines them. It’s a dark movie that can’t quite embrace its own darkness – at least, not until the end, when things get particularly nuts in an unexpected way.

Jimmy Ray (Sudeikis) appears before a parole board, pleading for an early end to his 15-year sentence for armed robbery – he has served 12 years thus far. His motivating reason for trying to get out is simple: the love of his life Annie (Evangeline Lilly), the woman who has waited for him for all these years, has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. She’s been given a year to live; Jimmy wants to get out so that he can make sure that year is as wonderful as possible.

His plea is successful. He’s released and Annie comes to the prison to pick him up. They make their way back to her home and try to pick up where they left off; sure, it has been a dozen years, but both are anxious to try to make up for lost time.

Things start to sour quickly, beginning with Jimmy’s first meeting with his parole officer, a smug, self-important type by the name of Schmidt (Shea Whigham). Schmidt gets Jimmy a job at the local loading dock, but despite the ex-con’s best efforts, it soon becomes clear that Schmidt is not on the up-and-up; he’s the sort of small man that gets off on the power trip his position affords him.

Schmidt soon tries to rope Jimmy into an illicit situation; when Jimmy refuses, the parole officer threatens to frame him and send him back to prison. Left with little choice, Jimmy agrees to serve as a courier for Schmidt’s unsavory side hustle. Quick thinking gets him out of some hot water in that circumstance, but in the aftermath, a distracted driving incident – purely accidental – leaves Jimmy panicking. He enlists the help of a friend from his past life, a scrap dealer named Frank (Jeremy Bobb), to help him fix things.

Alas, this accident has put Jimmy square in the crosshairs of Whit Price (Mike Colter), a local gentleman with, shall we say, diverse financial interests. And Jimmy’s accident has impacted those interests. So much so that Annie is endangered unless Jimmy can put things right, a difficult task because he’s not at all sure what’s gone wrong in the first place.

The situation spirals rapidly out of control, with increasingly unlikely and/or outlandish events taking place. Jimmy keeps spiraling deeper and deeper into the muck, but he remains steadfastly committed to one thing – doing right by Annie. And he is willing to anything – ANYTHING – to keep her safe.

“South of Heaven” packs a lot into its two-hour runtime. The framework of the film is a fairly typical southern neo-noir, populated with the sorts of shady types and cons-going-straight that we often see in those sorts of stories. And our narrative experience more or less follows that framework. However, the tone of the film vacillates constantly. Early on, we’re gifted with what seems like a love story. Not long after, we’re led to believe perhaps this will be some sort of caper. Then we land in a sort of small-time versus big-time crime story. We also have elements of goofy banter in some spots and brutal violence in others.

Seriously – this movie is all over the place.

However, I should note that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While the shifts in tone and general attitude can be a bit jarring, a lot of them actually work. Not all of them, and not all together, but many of them do work. It’s like there are assorted pieces of different movies that have been stitched together in a way that almost fits. The seams don’t quite line up, but it’s close enough that in many spots, you don’t really notice.

A lot of the film’s issues are rendered less impactful by the quality of performance. I love Sudeikis here; he finds multiple ways in which to wield his usual aw-shucks demeanor and all of them work. Lilly is a bit more of a struggle; she does her best, but she’s saddled with a bit of a Manic Pixie Cancer Girl character that doesn’t give her much room to run. She and Sudeikis are great together, though. Whigham is all Stetson hat and triangular sideburns; he’s a total s—tbird and I love it. And Colter navigates the soft-spoken sociopath criminal trope deftly, giving it unusual life.

“South of Heaven” is an uneven and somewhat strange movie. It wants to be a lot of things and doesn’t quite manage to be any of them. And yet, it still kind of works, thanks to the willingness of the cast to get weird and go for it. I dug it, even when (or perhaps especially when) it didn’t fully make sense.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 11 October 2021 09:41

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