Blood on Her Name starts with a murder. Maybe manslaughter. Or perhaps, something in between. All we know for sure is, when this thriller starts, Leigh Tiller (Bethany Anne Lind) has a dead body to dispose of, a son to protect, and secrets to keep. And she’s completely out of her league, lacking the forensic skills and, worse, moral ambivalence to get the job done clean.
A lowkey thrill ride that builds steady, quiet tension, Blood on Her Name thrives when it focuses on how utterly unprepared the average human is to do dirty deeds. Over the course of a tight 83-minute run time, director Matthew Pope (who also co-wrote with Don M. Thompson) follows a fumbling everywoman trying to do the right thing, watching her devolve into a mess of conflicting stories, barely concealed panic, and resurfacing trauma.
In her pre-corpse life, Leigh spent her days as the not-particularly-proud owner of an auto garage where her convict ex-husband used to do shady dealings. Saddled with that stigma and struggling to keep her humble business afloat, the single mother panics in her moment of crisis. With a dead body on her floor, she makes the regretful decision not to call the police and spends the next 80 minutes regretting that decision every step of the way.
But it’s her first moment of regret that gets her in the most trouble. When she realizes the body belongs to a family, she can’t face the guilt of leaving them without answers. So she gives the body back, like a total clown. You know what they say about good intentions, and Blood on Her Name makes for a refreshing thriller because the lead character constantly paves her own road to hell by consistently making terrible decisions. But for completely understandable reasons. She is, essentially, decent and that’s what dooms her from the start.
Indies have long been home to solid thrillers; all you need is good performances, a tight script, intriguing mystery, and a solid sense of timing — all of which can be done of the cheap. Blood on Her Name is right at home in that pantheon, lean and unadorned, but well-made, with a sharp eye for the small moments that can change, ruin, or end a life. The biggest problem is that indie thrillers are so prolific, it’s really really hard to make one that feels new. Blood on Her Name never quite clears that hurdle. You’ve probably seen a few versions of this movie before. But for a few inspired moments in the scripting, there’s an undeniable familiarity to it all, and no matter how many see-through lies Leigh spins, you always have a good sense of where the film’s going from beat-to-beat.
Fortunately, Pope does nice work baking that in, which means that if Blood on Her Name sometimes feels like re-treading familiar territory, it also conjures a steady sense of dread. You don’t want to go down that road because you know what’s waiting for you and it’s not good. And that feeling only intensifies as Leigh continues to pull the walls in on herself, building her own trap with each lie or spasm of honesty, both of which she always seems to deploy in the exact wrong moment.
Pope also pulls some great performers out of his cast, and the film is at its best when it leans on their strengths, particularly as the threads weave together in the final act. Lind is subtle but compelling as Leigh; alternately icy and over-expressive with the slow-boiling panic of fear underneath. Will Patton also gets a nice turn as her estranged father, the local sheriff whose position of power never quite offers the amount of comfort it should since he comes with his own heavy baggage. Elisabeth Röhm also has some standout moments as the hard but grieving girlfriend of the deceased.
Like the beats, the themes here will feel familiar to any fan of the genre. Crime is hard, humans are foolish and flawed creatures, revenge is messy, and guilt can be a killer. The classics. Blood on Her Name is most effective when it digs into those themes and what they mean for the characters, and a bit less effective when it relies on the murder mystery angle. By the time we meet Leigh, the “why” doesn’t really matter. All she cares about is “what now?” and the film absolutely delivers every time it focuses on that question. The actions themselves aren’t all that interesting, but the consequences are spectacular.
A slow-burn thriller that eventually sparks into something special, Blood on Her Name takes some patience. Not just because of the stillness and steady pacing, but because Leigh can be a downright moron about her circumstances. But honestly, that’s why I like the movie so much. Thrillers are all about putting average characters in over their heads, but rarely are those characters so devastatingly bad at crime as this poor woman. It’s actually a very endearing and refreshing character turn in the end; a good lady in a bad situation, with none of the skills it takes to get herself out of it with grace.
And that feels more honest, too. Most of us aren’t Liam Neeson. We’d absolutely botch an attempted murder cover-up, just like she does, and it’s fascinating to watch as Leigh just keeps shoveling. That’s a lot more intriguing than another steely protagonist with shockingly good aim and it’s what keeps Blood on Her Name a gripping watch, even through the weaker moments. It might not be a winning mystery, but it is an evocative story of crime and punishment, choice and consequence, cycles of violence, and human failing.
Blood on Her Name made its world premiere at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.