[Fantastic Fest review] ‘IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON’ doesn’t make light of its dark subject matter

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James C. Clay// Film Critic

IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON

Not rated, 112 minutes.
Director: Jim Mickle
Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Cleopatra Coleman, Michael C. Hall, Bokeem Woodbine

Austin-Jim Mickle’s (COLD IN JULY) Netflix film IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON is a genre-mashing thriller that has something for everybody. The ingredients include time travel with a dash of body horror, a serial killer on the loose, and at the center is an unfortunate cop whose life is spiraling out of control. There’s a lot to unpack; the writers Gregory Weidman and Geoff Tock throw everything into a blender, just out of sheer curiosity to see what would happen. Often, this is a suicide note for genre filmmaker, but Mickle’s patient directing style allows some of those ingredients to become a bit more savory upon reflection. Although not everything sticks the landing, it’s a whirlwind of a film that couldn’t take some of the mind-blowing chances it takes without the powerful streamer’s generous budget.

Under all the pulpy elements the film takes on far-right turns, and through the decades-spanning story, we end up precisely where the filmmakers intended. While the third act’s emotional arc diminishes in favor of the sci-fi elements, what the filmmaking team does on a craft-level is impressive.

Philadelphia beat cop Locke (Boyd Holbrook) is working on a steady stream of night shifts with his partner Maddox (an always exciting Bokeem Woodbine). Locke’s got a pregnant wife at home and making the grave mistake of putting work before family, and it shows. He lives an exhaustive life, and it’s his ambition that’s causing him to break apart at the seams. Locke’s brother in law Holt (an against type Michael C. Hall), an up and coming detective, keeps the wayward detective in check. Holbrook’s plays Locke as an overly obsessed detective on the fast track to looking and sounding like present-day Nick Nolte.

Boyd Holbrook in IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON (photo courtesy of Netflix)

After reports that several citizens have died from bleeding out of every visible orifice, Locke and Maddox go on a tour of the city to figure out what caused these bizarre deaths. Strange puncture wounds on each of the victims grab the detectives’ attention, as does the insanely agile hooded woman named Rya (Cleopatra Coleman) who is running around town. Does she hold the answers Locke desperately seeks?

The first act is dynamite with major David Fincher ZODIAC vibes, and without question, the set up is robust. The photography by David Lanzenberg (PAPER TOWNS) sticks to a blue color palette that runs throughout the majority of the overnight scenes. This hazy atmosphere feels ripped right out of scrappy cop movie from the late 90s.

The film spaces out narrative chunks and plays out like a novel; each section ends on thunderous punctuation that takes Locke further down a dark hole. It’s just when the information starts to get dumped does the excitement start to turn more into ambivalence. There are tons of ideas, and some have more payoffs than others.

Holbrook has a natural screen presence that’s effortlessly cool, but I wish he did more with his performance. For being at the center of this juicy movie, he’s the only one who doesn’t rise to the occasion. It’s like getting some delicious queso and eating it with saltine crackers.

Mickle works with a much larger budget than in his four previous feature films. The confidence in IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON sells the more implausible moments. In the pre-screening introduction, Mickle thanked Netflix for making this brand of “middle class filmmaking” possible. His film is precisely this: high brow subject matter grounded by a gritty drama that’s palatable for a mass audience.

IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON is risk-taking filmmaking perfect for Netflix, and that isn’t a slight toward Mickle and company. Their brand of filmmaking elevates the grindhouse action flick into accessible art. While results may vary, there’s a fascinating center to Mickle’s film that sells the material.

Grade: B-

In The Shadow Of The Moon Screened at Fantastic Fest. It has an encore screening Monday 9/23 at 2:00pm. It will be released on Netflix on 9/27.