It’s not every day you watch a movie grapple with what the hell it wants to do with itself as you’re watching it. But that’s basically the case with South Of Heaven, which goes in so many different directions tonally, it’s almost like the filmmakers decided to work out the narrative kinks on camera.
At first, it seems like we’re watching an old-school, Southern-fried neo-noir. Jason Sudeikis plays Jimmy Ray, a recently released ex-con who just wants to get married to his longtime sweetheart, Annie (Evangeline Lilly, rocking a blonde pixie cut), who has lung cancer and a limited time on this planet. Of course, Jimmy is determined to stay on the straight-and-narrow for his gal. Unfortunately, he’s got a thorn in his side: Schmidt (Shea Whigham, all sideburns), a very corrupt parole officer who’s willing to frame Jimmy and send him back to the pen if he doesn’t do a dangerous errand for him.
You’d think that the sinister Schmidt’s stranglehold on our poor hero would count as the central conflict, given that the movie spends the first half of its running time establishing it. But things take a sharp left turn once Jimmy gets in an accident with a nasty aftermath, and—out of sheer panic—spends a whole night getting rid of the bloody remains. From there, he runs afoul a new Big Bad: crime boss Whit Price (Mike Colter, suave and sharp-tongued). It turns out the victim of Jimmy’s accident was a courier carrying $500,000. So what happened to the money? What will Price do to get it back? And what plan of action will Jimmy take once Annie is involved?
Heaven goes all the way out there. It creates the impression that director Aharon Keshales and his co-writers, Kai Mark and Navot Papushado, got bored with their storyline and kept changing it up during production, not giving a damn if it made any sense. The movie basically spends an hour as a kind of Blood Simple-esque pulp yarn with surprisingly slow dissolves. (Whigham rolls around this thing in slicked-out cowboy gear, looking like a less-portly M. Emmet Walsh.) Then it decides to be more like Fargo—that other, offbeat noir from the Coen brothers—and comically goes off the rails.
The cast plays along. As an ex-con who keeps slumping back into trouble, despite his earnest efforts to avoid it, Sudeikis slings out the same good ol’ boy charm and twang that’s made him so beloved on Ted Lasso. Lilly, as his terminally ill damsel-in-distress, mostly just seems unperturbed: Medicating herself with pre-rolled marijuana joints, her character is more concerned with her future plans than the current chaos her boy keeps sliding into.
Straight-faced and suspenseful at first, wacky and almost randomly nihilistic afterwards, South Of Heaven just doesn’t know what it wants to be. It doesn’t even know how to end, dropping two separate codas to wrap this mess up and basically encouraging the audience to decide which they prefer. The result feels off-kilter and incomplete: a bloody, bittersweet crime thriller made for and by people with short-attention spans.