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I’m a sucker for a gimmicky premise. Wanna tell your story in a handful of long takes? Great. Tell your story over 12 years with the cast aging as their characters do? Tremendous. Presenting your story in reverse? Sign me up. Despite Christopher Nolan and Gaspar Noe mastering the backward story format, I get a kick out of people giving it their best shot. Shimmer Lake, Netflix‘s latest original film, is a noble attempt in the vein of Memento and Irreversible. Written and directed by Oren Uziel (making his debut behind the camera), Shimmer Lake is a darkly funny crime story. It tracks an investigation that ends on a Friday to the Monday robbery that brings about said investigation.
For Uziel, one of the co-writers on 22 Jump Street, to not name his first feature Case of the Mondays shows impressive restraint. That sense of control looms over Shimmer Lake, despite each day unwinding a new twist, for a story that is relatively easy to track. As Sheriff Zeke Sikes, Benjamin Walker anchors the story and sets the tone for the film. He’s a better fit for the serious aspects of the story than the comedy. That’s OK, because the supporting cast features Rainn Wilson, Ron Livingston, Rob Corddry, Adam Pally, and Wyatt Russell, among others.
However, the comedy falls short—with the more blatant jokes stalling out. This is especially true for Corddry and Livingston, who play two feds sent to oversee Zeke. Normally hilarious, Corddry and Livingston feel extraneous, like they’re only here to help sell the film.
Shimmer Lake drips with desperation, with its characters seeking escape, justice, and revenge. It’s this aspect of the story that got its hooks in me. At the heart of the story is a failure of justice, the ripples of which touch everyone in the cast. As the story unwinds, each day brings somebody else back from the grave until we learn who dropped the rock in the water. The reverse unfolding highlights the inevitability of the characters’ outcomes. It builds to a final reveal that is equal parts obvious and devastating. It’s deceptively effective and ultimately simple.
As a writer Uziel’s script is solid. Its dialogue is often uneven, and is too on the nose. The story’s structure and plotting are the highlights. It relies on countless crime tropes, but weaves its stories together in a satisfying way. Given its dumb criminals and darkly comic tendencies, Shimmer Lake will undoubtedly draw comparisons to the Coen Brothers. It’s one that the film can’t live up to. It’s Blood Simple‘s distant, distant cousin: If you squint you can kind of see the resemblance. Compared to Netflix’s other black comedy crime movies of just this year, Shimmer Lake falls short of the bar set by Macon Blair’s I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore and Evan Katz’s Small Crimes. Those films have a stronger grasp on their dual tones.
As a director Uziel makes a good impression. He stages scenes in interesting ways and favors longer shots that heighten the tension. He lets scenes unfold and doesn’t edit them to death. It creates a sense of unease that works to the film’s benefit. His approach also helps bring out the best of the film’s comedic flashes. The bank robbery and a bedroom standoff are the best examples of Uziel bringing all of his skills to bear.
The cast mostly holds its own. Wilson, in particular, makes a strong impression in a largely dramatic turn as Andy, Zeke’s brother. Wilson turns Andy, a complete scumbag on paper, and make him someone you can empathize with. Russell succeeds in a similar manner, which creates a thematic link between the characters to match their more schematic pairing. As Zeke’s partner Reed, Pally is delightfully put upon and loyal. Of the comic relief characters, Pally hits most frequently while staying in line with the film’s tone. Given the cast’s comedy bonafides, it’s a pleasant surprise to see them carry the drama as well as they do.
Shimmer Lake doesn’t break much ground as a crime movie, but it’s an exciting final project. Genre enthusiasts may find it to be just another walk in the park, but if you see it on your queue and recognize some faces, you won’t be disappointed by watching.
Eddie Strait is a member of the Austin Film Critic Association. His reviews focus primarily on streaming entertainment, with an emphasis on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other on-demand services.