[‘SOUTH OF HEAVEN’ Review] Aharon Keshales’s follow-up to ‘BIG BAD WOLVES’ huffs and puffs to middling results.

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

SOUTH OF HEAVEN

Rated R, 120 minutes.
Director: Aharon Keshales
Cast: Jason Sudeikis, Evangeline Lilly, Shea Whigham, and Mike Colter

Aharon Keshales was on a high. It was 2013, and his second feature with Navot Papushado, the hard-nosed revenge tale BIG BAD WOLVES, was met with a fair amount of acclaim. Quentin Tarantino called it the best film of the year. But the business of making movies isn’t a quick one. The minutiae of the production process and distribution can affect rising talents as well as established pros. And for those who write and direct their projects, the opportunities to get something made are getting smaller.

Papushado got his chance first this year with the Netflix action-thriller GUNDPOWER MILKSHAKE. Keshales follows with SOUTH OF HEAVEN, a Texas-set crime story about a doomed romance taking a bad turn that only gets worse.

Jimmy (Jason Sudeikis without his trademark Ted Lasso mustache) is released from prison after 12 years of a 15-year stint for armed robbery. However, the only thing he robbed was time away from his sweetheart Annie (Evangeline Lilly). Adding to his misfortune is learning she’s dying from lung cancer. Docs say a year at most. Nevertheless, Jimmy vows to make things right.

A wedding is a must, plus giving Annie all the comforts he has failed to deliver. His pursuit of happiness encounters a roadblock in the form of Schmidt (a Mutton choppy Shea Whigham), Jimmy’s shady parole officer. Schmidt pressures Jimmy into collecting a sum of money from area drug dealers. The job gets handled only to take a deadly turn when he clips a motorcyclist on the drive back. The guy on the bike was a bagman carrying $500,000 for Price (Mike Colter), a small-town gangster. Jimmy thinks he’s in the clear after disposing of the body. Unfortunately, bad luck and trouble follow him home.

SOUTH OF HEAVEN spends more than an hour solidifying Jimmy’s domestic reintegration and his love for Annie. The days wain, and the nights creep up as they stand outside their home, contemplating their remaining time. After Jimmy’s problems start to escalate, the story follows. The change in direction offers suspense, but it also subverts expectations. Keshales does his best to sidestep the predictable cliches found in crime pictures and shies away from aggression until Jimmy’s predicament is most grim.

This poses a set of problems for the audience. Jimmy’s a reformed man becoming a backed-into-a-corner antihero. Price’s hardened criminal is softened through conversation. He’s still a bad dude, yet not as black and grey. By humanizing the characters, Keshales’s offers an air of commonality between the two men. Annie becomes the catalyst in changing both, if only a short while, bringing about unfulfilled potential – in terms of story and ending.

SOUTH OF HEAVEN is an uneven slow-burner that’s more about halfhearted emotional exchanges than acts of violence. Sudeikis and company are game to try and make it all work, but Keshales, like his hero, finds himself boxed into a corner, stuck in oblivion.

Grade: C+

The RLJE Films release is now playing in select theaters and available on VOD and Digital.

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