Like a lamb stridently making its own way to the slaughter, the goofy Netflix thriller In the Shadow of the Moon is a curio begging to be torn apart. It’s a film so odd and unwieldy that it’s impossible to finish watching without exhibiting some sort of extreme, visceral reaction. I would understand annoyance, befuddlement, shock or incredulity and I imagine director Jim Mickle would empathise but as I scratched my head, I also found myself oddly charmed by its brazen nuttiness, a film aiming for the stars and, sometimes, almost succeeding.
I say almost because there’s a great deal here that doesn’t work, an inevitable pitfall when trying to do so very much. The plot is best explained with minimal detail and while the trailer is embedded here to watch, I’d recommend avoiding it entirely. The first scene is set in 2024, a brief tease of a future rife with anarchy, smashed office windows looking down on to a street filled with fiery chaos. We’re then hauled back to 1988 for the investigation of a bizarre string of hard-to-explain deaths, each victim suddenly bleeding out during their workdays with no perpetrator to be seen. With ambitions to become a detective, officer Thomas Lockhart (Boyd Holbrook) inserts himself into the investigation, soon launched on the trail of a young female killer who evades capture with ease.
To say much more would, in my mind, be a spoiler, but moving forward, the film makes full use of its time-jumping structure as well as its utter indefinability, wildly racing ahead at full speed, switching from detective thriller to science fiction to social parable without stopping to take a breath. It’s unpredictable in so many ways and yet crushingly predictable in others, embracing cliches while charting its unusual path: the doggedly obsessive, increasingly bearded cop is painfully familiar even if the case he’s investigating might not be. It’s laughably earnest and frustratingly coy at times, especially near the end, but also in its own eccentric way, sort of unique. There are good intentions behind the film and if the script, from Gregory Weidman and Geoffrey Tock, gets muddled, Mickle is a reliable hand behind the camera.
One of the most common critiques of the many, many Netflix original movies that get spewed out on a weekly basis is an overwhelming flatness, each looking as cheaply, anonymously assembled as the last. It might sound like faint praise to herald In the Shadow of the Moon as “directed”, but the difference is quite remarkable. There’s a clear, crisp aesthetic here, especially in the atmospheric 80s-set first act, and Mickle works hard at providing more than just product, unlike many of his Netflix peers. It feels like an actual movie with a distinct style and a number of diverting action sequences, choreographed with care.
There’s a slicker, more coherent and ultimately more thematically audacious film to be made from the disparate elements that make up In the Shadow of the Moon but what we have is a lovable mess nonetheless. Its ambitions are easy to criticise but hard not to admire, a mad little movie with big ideas on its mind.
In the Shadow of the Moon is available on Netflix from 27 September