Marcus Dunstan – who usually works with co-writer Patrick Melton – paid his dues with scriptwork on the Feast and Saw series, then turned writer-director on the solid little horror film The Collector, which was successful enough to merit a sequel, The Collection, but hasn’t blossomed into a franchise. However, Dunstan carries over the lead of those films, Josh Stewart, into this rural noir thriller, which also follows The Collector in a mini-cycle of recent pictures in which ‘ordinary, decent’ criminals find themselves up against far worse folks (cf: No One Lives, Don’t Breathe).
Army vet John (Josh Stewart) is semi-unwillingly working for his Mississippi drug boss uncle Neil (Kenny Barr) and planning with loyal wife Rosie (Alex Essoe, of Starry Eyes) to cut out as soon as they’re well set-up enough to get away from the genial, yet plainly monstrous Neil. When John notices a trash-bin rolled into the middle of the road, he makes the neighbourly gesture of putting it back in place – and the soft-spoken next door guy Troy (Bill Engvall) comes round with a couple of cold beers to quiz him about the tracks on his property, setting John’s antennae twitching as he mentions that he’s noticed suspicious activity in John’s garage, where numberplates are changed on drug-delivery cars … though it’s telescope-snooping Rosie who spots Troy murdering a guy who seems to be escaping from his basement and realises that the neighbour and his sons Cooper (Luke Edwards) and Harley (Ronnie Gene Blevins) are running a lucrative, sinister racket from their home. Then, Troy notices that Rosie has noticed, and John comes home to find his wife missing and all clues pointing across the road.
This is more a tough cowboy crime picture, in the spirit of recent work like Blue Ruin and Cold in July, though with a more action-oriented, serial-style plot of physical threat, peril and escape, and folks in desperate situations taking more desperate measures. It has twists, some guessable – like who else is in on Troy’s racket – and some out of left field, but the thing that works best about it is the fierce bond between the married leads, with Essoe a gutsier heroine than usual for this sort of thing and the underrated Stewart simmering credibly as a not-bad guy in a bad business up against a range of terrible people in a worse one. Dunstan and Melton know from their Saw days how to turn the screws, and there are any number of uh-oh moments – including a fight in a shallow grave full of raw mystery meat which leads to the death of the one character sensible enough to de-escalate the situation – and gruesome payoffs. Engvall, usually a redneck comedian, tones it down and manages menace as a bad guy patriarch. It’s a smart, tough, bleak little suspense picture with just a sliver of heart.