[Note: This review originally posted out of Fantastic Fest 2019]
When you think of Jim Mickle, you probably conjure a certain type and tone of movie to mind. The filmmaker behind indie horror gems like Stake Land and We Are What We Are and crime thrillers like Cold in July and the wonderful Sundance TV series Hap and Leonard, Mickle has an established talent for blending grounded narratives with a touch of high-concept fantasticism. With his new Netflix sci-fi detective drama, Mickle takes his biggest swing yet with an ambitious genre-bending tale of murder, obsession, and redemption.
The less you know about In the Shadow of the Moon before you walk in, the better, so I’ll keep this short, sweet, and spoiler-free as possible. Boyd Holbrook stars as Locke, an ambitious Philadelphia police officer who winds up locked in an obsessive, life-defining hunt for a serial killer that spans decades. In 1988, bodies start piling up. Victims with no obvious connection, from all walks of life, die suddenly and horribly after being assaulted and injected with a mysterious agent. But when Locke and his higher-ranking, standoffish brother-in-law Holt (Michael C. Hall) track down the culprit, everything takes a turn towards sci-fi. Especially when — against all laws of science — the murderer is back on a killing spree nine years later. And then nine years after that. And nine years after that, too. A recurring nightmare that drives Locke ever deeper to the brink of madness, calling his entire reality into question.
As you might guess from that description, In the Shadow of the Moon is a plot-heavy genre mash-up with big, impressive ambitions. And often, those ambitions lead to thrilling story choices and rich, cinematic set-pieces. The first half, in particular, is full of evocative imagery; the standout being Mickle’s chilling embrace of the gory and grotesque when he stages his murder victims. Across the board, Mickle’s direction and his striking work with cinematographer David Lanzenberg are the highlights of the film. The chase scenes are pulse-pounding, the end results can be horrifying, and it all looks gorgeous (especially for those of us who were lucky enough to see it in the theatrical festival screening.) The downside is that the film isn’t just plot-heavy. In turn, it’s also character-light.
The best hook is Locke’s descent into Zodiac-levels of obsessive investigation and the way his consistent choice to put work and his concept of justice before family leads to the death of his own happiness. His downward spiral bottoms out time after time, each new low a horrifying consequence of his own choices. It’s not subtle, but it’s effective. But at the same time, there’s no real depth to the psychology of his tireless pursuit despite the on constant beatings he takes for his doggedness. We don’t get to understand his sense of justice or the source of his obsession beyond “murder is bad” and a late-developed hope that his chase could possibly undo some of the harm it caused, and without a deeper understanding of what makes him tick, it often feels more like an archetypal construct than a character study.
Likewise, In the Shadow of the Moon taps into racial and socio-political themes that give the film timeliness but feel underexplored. These topics have become hyper-relevant and thoroughly investigated in the years since the script was written, and what might have once felt like a cutting-edge prod at a raw nerve lying under the surface of America’s civil discourse, now feel like a surface-level glance at culture-dominating topics. In the Shadow of the Moon seeks to shine a light on issues that have been sitting dead center in the spotlight for years, and by now, we’ve graduated to a lot more nuance and depth in the conversation than the film can give. It’s likely an unfortunate a byproduct of production timelines, but there’s no denying it makes the impact lesser.
The film’s biggest fault is ultimately is the overwhelming stamp of Netflix’s hyper-polished storytelling that rolls over the finer details in the film’s final act. In the end, Mickle’s ambition falls prey to some aggressive scripting of the reveals, which are translated with the subtlety of a shotgun. As if designed, maybe, to ensure you totally get the movie even if you were, let’s say, for example, just half-watching on your phone. Which is a bit over the top if you actually are paying attention. That said, even with its faults, In the Shadow of the Moon is a thrilling genre exercise that showcases Micke’s talents while pointing to what should be a bright future in big-budget filmmaking.
Mickle’s eye remains a singular signature treat, and even with an expansive sci-fi story to tell, he manages to make the world feel realistic and relatable — sometimes too much for your liking. You might see some of the twists coming in the end, but that doesn’t take away from the thrill ride of getting to those big reveals. Sharply shot with standout flourishes of enthusiastic genre flair, In the Shadow of the Moon may have too much of that signature Netflix sheen, but Mickle brings enough grit to keep it grounded.