Mistakes and bad decisions are simply a part of human nature. We are flawed, imperfect beings, and it is up to each of us, on an individual level, to learn from our errors and make the most of the positive opportunities that we encounter. Granted, not all lapses in judgment are equal. Some gaffes are relatively contained to the personal life of the transgressor, while other mistakes have horrible adverse effects that extend into the world and the lives of others. Co-written and directed by Aharon Keshales, with additional writers Kai Mark and Navot Papushado, South of Heaven explores how a single ill-advised decision can turn into something unimaginably worse through a volatile combination of ignorance, misfortune, and chance.
The character of Jimmy Ray (Jason Sudeikis) has been in prison for 12 years, serving a sentence for armed robbery. There is a lot more nuance to the situation regarding this crime, and Jimmy appears to be of genuinely good character. He gets out on parole, and is set on returning to a straight, crime-free life with the woman he loves, Annie (Evangeline Lilly). However, from the opening scene of the film, it is apparent that this love story will also be one of tragedy, when it is revealed that Annie has terminal lung cancer. Jimmy and Lilly could be considered “star-crossed lovers,” a trope dating back to Shakespeare, but, make no mistake, there is nothing remotely formulaic about South of Heaven. While it is a story of romance at its core, this film is also, at times, an unhinged crime thriller and mobster genre piece. The world of organized crime barges in on what initially looks to be the development of a tender, yet heartbreaking relationship drama. While the romance remains at the heart of the film, practically every other narrative decision takes the story further into unfamiliar territory.
It is fascinating to consider how the plot of South of Heaven explores the uncertainty of decision-making through the character of Jimmy, and compare this to the decision-making process of director Aharon Keshales and his co-writers in the development of the film itself. Each pivotal moment in the narrative that has the potential to steer the film off into a completely different direction is indeed taken advantage of to do just that. Whenever any story arrives at a critical juncture, the viewer may be led to expect one of two things will result — either the standard, predictable plot development, or the more creative, inspired storytelling device. Keshales jumps at the chance to take the unexpected route, and does so with an impassioned gusto that demands respect. And, as he consistently chooses the more innovative story beats, he executes them with intentions to shock the audience in a memorable fashion. If given the choice of taking the path “here” or “there,” Keshales frequently chooses the “way over there” option.
Unfortunately, this caution-to-the-wind storytelling approach is to its detriment in some cases. South of Heaven is a film that requires the viewer to be on a similar wavelength as the director, or at least be willing to adjust their expectations as necessary. Still, even the most adaptable audience members may struggle to entirely keep pace with the sudden ebbs and flows. As jarring as this film is, a tighter edit might have cleaned up some of the messier bits into something slightly more coherent. The last half hour of the runtime, in particular, is where these issues become more apparent. The true emotional climax of the film is hard to pinpoint, simply because new layers are peeled back until the closing frame. The gutsiness in the storytelling is admirable, but a tighter leash could have been beneficial to the final product.
While some of the narrative creativity in South of Heaven is hit or miss, there is a lot of praise to be given to the tangible filmmaking techniques. The cinematography from Matt Mitchell brings a certain visual excitement to each scene, whether it is an extended dialogue sequence between two people sitting on a couch, or a jaw-dropping one-take shootout set piece that must have taken hours of meticulous choreography and blocking to get right. Many portions of the production were filmed in Texas, and the on-location shots have a natural, rough-hewn quality to them that complement the tonal atmosphere of the film. The foreboding musical score from David Fleming, with its low, bassy strings, has a way of getting under your skin, as well. There is a lot of care in the craft at hand in South of Heaven.
General reactions to Keshales’s film will likely be all over the map, depending on what viewers bring with them and how much they are willing to shift their whole perspective of the story at any given moment. This film is the furthest thing from a “crowd pleaser,” and is prone to make some folks upset if they do not know what they are getting into. With that said, South of Heaven may be right on the money for others as just the kind of audacious thriller that they are looking for.
In theaters, on VOD, and digital October 8th, 2021.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.