In the Shadow of the Moon (Film Review)

With films like the moody remake of cannibal family saga We Are What We Are, the violent downward spiral of Cold in July, and a foray into TV with the excellent (and sadly cancelled) amateur crime-solving bromance series, Hap and Leonard, Jim Mickle always brings a fantastic energy and grit to his work.

While he’s dabbled in a number of genres, common across his work is a loving focus on character and, more recently, an exploration of timely social issues. In the Shadow of the Moon, just released on Netflix, is no different.

I’ll try to be as vague as possible here, but it’s hard to talk about this film without at least getting into some minor spoilers and the thematic meat of the story, so anyone who hasn’t seen the trailer and doesn’t want even a hint of the plot spoiled for them, go watch it right now with my ardent recommendation, and then come back and read the rest of this.

Still here? Okay.

Imbuing a gory serial killer thriller with time travel elements is a novel idea if not exactly brand-shining-new, but Mickle executes this surprisingly ambitious film with an assured hand, ensuring both elements are engaging and the sum of their parts coalesces into something surprising – and surprisingly heartfelt. Again, his focus on character over spectacle is what sets this apart from some of the more generic Netflix originals we’ve seen over the last few years.

(Side note: anyone aching for some more time traveling serial killer action should check out Lauren Beukes’ incredible book The Shining Girls.)

The film’s prologue opens in 2024, in Philadelphia. Some sort of fiery catastrophe has decimated several buildings, and a burning American flag drifts down past the blown-out windows of a high-rise office.

After this brief scene, we jump all the way back to Philly in 1988, where we follow Boyd Holkbrook’s Thomas Lockhart, a uniformed cop aiming for a promotion to detective and with a baby on the way. While on his nightly beat, Lockhart encounters some gruesome and seemingly random deaths that share an inexplicable M.O. The atmosphere here is grimy and palpable, and the character interactions are stellar, really giving us a feel for how each person works and feels within the context of the film’s world.

The film’s score, by Mickle’s regular composer, Jeff Grace, is moody and energetic, really oiling the film’s narrative wheels and exacerbating the tension and mystery.

From this emotionally gruelling and wonderfully moody set-up, the film jumps ahead nine years to 1997, and then again to 2006 and 2015, charting Lockhart’s dangerous obsession with the mysterious killer.

The always excellent Bokeem Woodbine and Michael C. Hall round out the cast as Lockhart’s partner and brother-in-law, respectively. Rachel Keller and Rudi Dharmalingam are also good in their brief roles, but relative newcomer Cleopatra Coleman is a standout as Rya, the time-traveling and obviously-more-to-her-than-meets-the-eye killer. She comes to do a lot of the film’s heavy lifting in many ways, shouldering the issues it explores with a sense of stoicism and determination, and her motivations aren’t just personal, but social, symbolic.

In terms of what we see on-screen, though, this is essentially Holbrook’s film, and through its time-jumping ‘chapters’ we witness the effect that the fatal 1988 encounter has on him, driving him to a decades-long obsession with catching this killer, whose motives and methods defy explanation.

In many ways, I loved this film. It’s all very well made – the directing is assured, the performances excellent, and everything feels fresh and dangerous and thrilling, with an emotional core that’s beautifully evoked on so many levels. Mickle juggles several elements (the least of which turns out to be the cross-genre aspect) in a way that a lesser filmmaker would almost certainly drop the ball on. The time travel element is great without being overbearing, and the investigative aspects and world-building are all beautifully executed.

While I absolutely love the direction the story chooses to head in, I think there’s a divide between what the film says and how it says it that doesn’t always work in its favour. The problem here is one of perspective.

Beyond the arc that his obsession takes him on, Lockhart isn’t a particularly interesting or unique protagonist in his own right, but Mickle’s direction and Holbrook’s performance elevate his story in execution if not narrative. The film’s shortcomings certainly aren’t Holbrook’s – or any of the cast’s – fault. It’s a pleasure to see him allowed to embody a lead role so well after the post-production disaster that was Shane Black’s 2018 The Predator, and so many small but memorable roles in films like Logan and A Walk Among the Tombstones. As a character study, In the Shadow of the Moon is still well executed and emotionally affecting, but I feel conflicted about the point of view it chooses to tell its story from.

Although it takes a while for the film’s prevalent themes to come to the fore, they’re telegraphed from the opening shot of the ruined buildings: the tattered flag drifting down over the carnage is a retooled version of the American Stars and Stripes, the stars portion depicting the Confederate cross, a common symbol of white supremacy. On one hand, the way it eases us into this exploration of race and terrorism – which has sadly never been more relevant today – is a smart move for a film marketed as something more commercial and popcorn-friendly (even if that popcorn came out of your microwave).

On the other hand, as Holbrook’s Lockhart gets closer to the truth about the murders he’s given up everything – including a relationship with his daughter – to pursue, he expresses no discernible opinion about the glaring moral complexities of the case beyond his single-minded determination to catch the killer. This is Lockhart’s problem in general – he doesn’t engage in much self-reflection until it’s too late, and this feels more symptomatic of his need for a particular character arc, than something his character might actually do. Maybe not self-reflection, but at least his reaction to certain major revelations the film throws at him about the nature of Rya’s murder victims doesn’t really ring true. If they’d tweaked this aspect, the problem of perspective wouldn’t be so glaring. It doesn’t ruin the film by any means, but it does leave a nagging little flaw in an otherwise excellent, and wonderfully ambitious narrative.

The way the film integrates its exploration of race as it reaches its quietly touching climax definitely feels earned in many ways, and I can see what Mickle is trying – and mostly succeeding – to achieve. It’s a film about finding something new, and how we can either kill our outdated and harmful mindsets or adapt to a new way of thinking, both of which occur in different ways as the story progresses.

This is an excellent, well-paced film that eschews expectations and moments of redundant action for a deeper exploration of how we fight, not just acts of organised violence and terrorism, but the idea of them. And this, despite the wailing protests of cry-babies the world over – who are going to have some serious tantrums about In the Shadow of the Moon – is what genre does best.