Film Review | In the Shadow of the Moon: The murderous churn of time

Boasting a solid core concept but hampered by crummy execution, the latest high-concept offering from the Netflix stable frustrates nearly as much as it satisfies

Directed by dependable genre-journeyman Jim Mickle off a script by Gregory Weidman and Geoff Tock, In The Shadow of the Moon proves that the legacy of ‘Netflix Originals’ feature films – at least those being churned out right now, a phase that will likely be remembered as something of an experimental period for the streaming giant – will be that they gave us some passable B-movie entertainment. Sure, there are the odd flash-in-the-pan gems – like Bong Joon-ho’s blistering emotional rollercoaster-cum-searing satire Okja or Jeremy Saultier’s folksy kidnapping thriller Hold the Dark – but on the whole, most feature-length gifts doled out by Netflix to subscribers tend to run the gamut from rote to terrible.

And for what it’s worth, we’re back in that camp once again, as the expansive and game-changing studio has now given the floor over to Mickle, an effective purveyor of stripped-down genre fare such as Stake Land and Cold in July. The end result hardly bucks their trend towards low-hanging-fruit storytelling, but the film’s unapologetic embrace of both pulp story-telling and pulp dialogue, and a moderately intriguing time-travel undercurrent make it just that little bit more digestible than some its shelf-mates on the scrolling library.

The time-hopping tale begins in Philadelphia in 1988, where Thomas Lockhart (Boyd Holbrook), an ambitious police officer with a pregnant wife back home, is keen to elbow his way into a fresh investigation on a strange case, even if his brother in law, Detective Holt (Michael C. Hall), has been assigned to take care of it. But the mysterious spate of sudden deaths conforms to the kind of pattern that pulp detectives are just designed to become obsessed about. Namely, the victims collapse due to a sudden bout of internal bleeding, and most of them seem to be carrying historical biography books of American presidents.

At the root of the mystery is the elusive hooded figure of Rya (Cleopatra Coleman), a young woman out of time but with a determined mission, and whose determination soon becomes matched by Thomas’s obsessive streak as he begins to give chase. What he discovers has to do with both the depressingly typical American tendency towards violent racism, as well a decidedly atypical dash of time-travel.

Of course it’s highly unlikely that any of this is at all intentional, but it is rather amusing that the dynamics of time are the root of this here story, given how the film’s most distracting (not to say interesting) features are directly intertwined with how storytelling time is treated, fractured and rearranged.

Barely any of my earlier complaints about the Netflix model apply to their series; the problems are mainly to do with their feature lengths. It’s a reminder of how a film remains something of a tough nut to crack, and that, once cracked, needs to be handled with true care so that it may blossom into its best possible shape. With In The Shadow of the Moon this becomes fairly evident by the story’s midpoint, which may as well be the closing note of the first episode of a two-parter mini-series. Sure, this staggered, episodic tempo is papered over somewhat by the exigencies of its time-hopping storyline, but coupled with the cheap sets and bland cinematography that is also part of the rushed Netflix MO, and one is left with a product so screamingly un-cinematic that it hurts.

But again, another way to look at it would be to welcome the fact that we’re now got our own global B-movie factory beamed right into our streaming-friendly devices. With its hammy acting (Holbrook is no leading man, no matter how hard he tries), its equally slapdash approach to character development and dialogue (Dexter’s Michael C. Hall cracks a ‘serial killer’ reference and attempts a baffling accent throughout and Bookem Woodbine’s comic relief sidekick is about as caricatured as you can imagine) and the conveniently preposterous and barely explained sci-fi mechanisms that allow for its leaps of fancy, here we’re given the equivalent of the kind of cheap paperback entertainments that our forebears would scoff down between shifts and on their commute, back in the day.
That has to be worth something at least, right?

The verdict

Though compromised by the usual Netflix corner-cutting – resulting in a poorly paced, badly lit and badly dressed experience that loses immersion points – In the Shadow of the Moon, nonetheless, manages to play well as a disposable high-concept B-movie with a kernel of an interesting – and borderline topical – speculation on how systemic racism in America can grow into something apocalyptic, unless it’s stopped before the point of no return is reached. There’s some mumbo-jumbo about lunar cycles that kinda-justifies the title too, but it’s not really convincing enough for all that.

Shadow of the Moon is currently streaming on Netflix