Overview: A small town police officer tries to apprehend three bank robbers, one of which is his brother; Footprint Features, Netflix; 2017; TV-MA; 86 minutes.
A county that doesn’t get dead bodies: Officer Zeke Sikes (Benjamin Walker) is a police officer tasked with solving a small-town bank robbery that involves his brother, Andy (Rainn Wilson). The drama of Shimmer Lake takes place in a small town ill-prepared to handle serious crime, and uses this setting and the contradictions therein to address the cynicism of Sikes as he aims to understand the crime that has taken place. Oren Uziel’s Shimmer Lake is also a story told out of order, reaching backwards over the course of a week and in the process revealing plots of blackmail, corruption, and conflicts between legal justice and personal revenge.
Shimmer Lake tries to capture the humor of small town naiveté mixed with the dark intrigue of genuine crime, but unfortunately fails to commit wholly to the former. It lacks the sort of specificity, commitment to its location, and comedic strength of Fargo, from which the film clearly takes inspiration. The town in which Sikes lives has no name and is home to establishments like “Rudy’s Scrapyard” and “Funland,” all of which all reflects the underexplored nature of the film’s representation of Small Town, USA.
Shimmer Lake attempts deconstruction of façades and pre-conceived notions with its setting and nonlinear storytelling, but lacks the focus and emotional stakes to make this deconstruction feel either original. Shimmer Lake is shallow as a result of its lack of focus, and despite beautiful visuals and an ambitious storytelling choice, fails to bring much originality to an often-addressed concept.
The only clean person in a town that’s completely dirty: The comedy isn’t sharp in most places, despite a well-stacked cast of comedians. John Michael Higgins, Rob Corddry, Adam Pally and Rainn Wilson have been shown to have comedic strengths, but weak writing doesn’t allow them to be as funny as they are elsewhere. There is an especially broadly comedic scene that feels out of place, passively homophobic and wholly unfunny. Despite its cast, this film is most effective as a crime drama. Steph (Stephanie Sigman) is one of the strongest of the minor characters, for example, because she lacks the humor of most of the men in the film and is more grounded in the emotional and revenge-oriented elements of the film.
Officer Sikes is the emotional core of the story, but is so level-headed and cold throughout most of the film that his character borders on bland. Most compelling is his frustration and cynicism toward the town, as he bemoans the people and corruption around him. There is untapped potential in terms of this frustration, but a one-note performance leaves Sikes from being pushed to any emotional limits. A twist late in the film gives his character a menacing, hypocritical dimension, but the film’s many other characters pull focus from Sikes throughout. When aspects of his character’s nature are revealed to be false, the revelation feels empty because so little of him was established to begin with.
There is little focus in terms of point of view, and side characters are largely distracting and unsympathetic. A judge trapped by blackmail, a few oblivious wives, a corrupt cop, buffoonish criminals, haughty government agents, all feel like stock characters that are never elevated beyond their respective roles. But there is potential in these interactions. The tension between government agents (Rob Corddry and Ron Livingston) and the local authorities, for example, is interesting when established, and also brings the nature of a small town way of life into play, but this theme remains underexplored.
When wrongs go un-righted: Nonlinear storytelling used in tandem with stories of crime with has the potential for a sense of participation and mystery on the part of the viewer. In Shimmer Lake this technique, one that may have felt more novel decades ago, fails to revolutionize what is a fairly by-the-books story of a small town crime gone wrong. There is also the problem of clarity that is a cost of this sort of storytelling. There is dense exposition in the earliest portions of the film; a huge amount of information is relayed too quickly in conversations that are difficult to follow, the details of which are easily forgotten and incomprehensible without the necessary context. The film explains itself at every turn, placing hokey clues along the way, trying to entice the viewer to re-watch and put the pieces together. The twist that occurs at the end of the film (the earliest event chronologically) is logical in terms of story, and complicates Sikes as a character, but hinges on the emotional resonance of a plot point that is under-established. What should be a gratifying twist is somewhat uninteresting.
Sikes states that the robbery is “a local crime committed by locals against locals.” There is an implication from the start that the problems and characters of this city will be the focal point, yet the film fails to deliver on this promise. The city feels an unformed location, as do its inhabitants. There are complexities under the surface in this film, of class, drug addiction, crime, grief, and betrayal that warp the veneer of kindly simplicity that accompanies the image of picturesque small American towns. But all of these themes feel underutilized in terms of the film’s emotional center, and overall fail to draw the viewer in.
Overall: Shimmer Lake is more committed to originality in its narrative presentation than exploration of its setting and characters, and unfortunately more commitment to the latter would have enhanced the effectiveness of the former.
Featured Image: Netflix