D: Oren Uziel / 86m
Cast: Benjamin Walker, Rainn Wilson, Stephanie Sigman, John Michael Higgins, Wyatt Russell, Adam Pally, Mark Rendall, Rob Corddry, Ron Livingston, Angela Vint, Isobel Dove
A low-key yet bristling thriller, Shimmer Lake – another title that is atmospheric yet has little relation to the main plot of the movie – tells its story in reverse. And so we see Andy Sikes (Wilson) in the basement of his own home, and yet he’s clearly trying to avoid being discovered. Upstairs is his brother, Zeke (Walker), the town sheriff. Soon we realise that there’s been a bank robbery, and Andy is involved, along with two other men, Ed Burton (Russell) and Chris Morrow (Rendall). It transpires that Andy has the money from the robbery, and Zeke is certain that he’s planning to meet up with Ed. He also has to contend with two FBI agents, Walker and Biltmore (Corddry, Livingston), whose approach to the investigation and the hunt for the three men appears less than serious. When they find the body of Judge Dawkins (Higgins), a wider conspiracy involving the death of Burton’s son begins to come to light. Later that night, having avoided being seen, Andy meets up with Ed’s wife, Steph (Sigman), but their meeting doesn’t go the way Andy had hoped.
The day before, Dawkins demands the return of an incriminating tape from Burton, Morrow’s role in the robbery is revealed, Steph deliberately injures herself before talking to Zeke and the FBI agents, and further details of the conspiracy are revealed. The day ends with the death of Dawkins and Andy coming into possession of the money. The previous day, Chris is lured out of hiding by Steph, and the two meet at a motel. Dawkins appears, anxious to secure the return of the tape. Steph has the money from the robbery and she makes Dawkins hide it until it’s safe. Andy hears that Zeke was shot during the robbery, and the FBI agents arrive in town. And on the day before that, all the various threads that have spun out along the ensuing days are shown their origins as we learn what happened during the robbery.
It’s easy to like the structure that first-time writer/director Oren Uziel has employed in telling his tale of small-town corruption, greed, and revenge, but while Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) is an obvious reference point, sadly – and despite the best of intentions – Shimmer Lake doesn’t match it for inventiveness, style, or sheer narrative trickery. Part of the issue is the pacing, with stretches of the movie feeling as if they’ve been played out beyond their natural length. The early scenes involving the FBI agents are tonally at odds with the rest of the movie, as if Uziel doesn’t trust their inclusion unless they’re cracking wise and providing fleeting moments of comedy. This makes them seem like idiots in a movie where everyone else is being resolutely serious. As the movie progresses and they appear less and less, it’s a minor blessing for the material that they do so, and the tone improves immensely.
But if there’s one main, altogether obvious, problem with Shimmer Lake, it’s the lack of any characters to sympathise with or root for. Zeke is a laconic, quietly thoughtful sheriff who lacks any charisma, and thanks to Walker’s laidback performance, often looks bored by having to mount an investigation in the first place. His deputy, Reed Ethington (Pally), is someone who manages to stay just this side of “dim-witted”, but it’s a close-run thing. Andy is shown initially as panicked, which might have provoked some sympathy, but as the movie reveals more and more of his past, we discover he’s a bit of an arrogant prick, and any sympathy dissipates. Chris is an obvious patsy, Steph is the Lady Macbeth character amongst it all, Ed is the “mastermind” who can’t tell an 8 when he sees it, and Dawkins is the devious bank manager whose private “foibles” act as a catalyst for the bank robbery itself (there’s a back story involving the death of Burton’s son, and this is ostensibly the reason for everything that happens, but Uziel refers to it as a motivator far too often for it to maintain any effectiveness).
What we’re left with is a thriller that spends too much time explaining itself, and not enough time posing a broader mystery than the one we can see in front of us. In telling a reverse-linear story, Uziel does well to hide the various inter-connections and relationships that drive the story backward (forward?), but by the time all is revealed, the viewer is unlikely to care too much, and a last-minute revelation (which is meant to be clever in a “ah-ha-you-didn’t-see-that-coming” kind of way), lacks the impact needed for audiences to say to themselves, “now it all makes sense”. Instead, Uziel presents us with a patchwork of moods, tones, dramatic elements, comedic soundbites, and an unconvincing milieu where Zeke and Reed are the only cops in town, and Andy’s daughter, Sally (Dove), can hear the phrase “fat, f*cking bastard” and then apply it to Reed within the very next minute.
Despite the talented cast, and Jarin Blaschke’s often brooding cinematography, what we have here, ultimately, is a movie whose clever approach doesn’t amount to much, and will in all likelihood, frustrate and annoy anyone who watches it. The test of a good reverse storyline is if it plays just as well – or better – if you watch from end to beginning (or beginning to end – you get the idea). Shimmer Lake is certainly a movie that tries its best, but there are few rewards here for the casual viewer, and for die-hard fans of this particular sub-genre of thrillers, too much will remain obvious no matter how much time Uziel has spent in obscuring things. Like so many thrillers with a clever central conceit that isn’t as rigorously applied as it needs to be, Shimmer Lake is more of a disappointment than a triumph.
Rating: 4/10 – what could have been a tense, nail-biting experience is reduced to that of a tepid, unfocused drama, and though Shimmer Lake takes some narrative risks, they’re not enough to make things any more rewarding; shallow at times, and with a casual disregard for any empathy that might be shown towards its characters, the movie is yet another feature that looks good on the surface but lacks the necessary substance underneath to keep audiences hooked until the end.