In 1988, Philadelphia police officer Thomas Lockhart (Boyd Holbrook), hungry to become a detective, begins tracking a serial killer who mysteriously resurfaces every nine years. But when the killer’s crimes begin to defy all scientific explanation, Locke’s obsession with finding the truth threatens to destroy his career, his family, and possibly his sanity.
One of the often touted advantages of services like Netflix is that, through its use of metrics, they can exactly what the viewers want to watch. This should be exciting, offering the chance to put money behind more niche films and deliver them directly to a waiting audience. However, if their recent roster of big banner release is to go by, what the audience wants isn’t excitement or innovation. If In The Shadow Of The Moon is any measure of what actually gets and keeps eyeballs, then what the bulk of viewers really want is something that’s non-threateningly almost-innovative and dull.
This film starts out strong, with a series of impossible deaths and the main character of Locke (played by Boyd Holbrook), the soon-to-be-father beat cop who lightly “plays by his own rules” in a team and community spirited manner. There are no clues to who, how, or why three unrelated people had their brains melt at the same time. Well, almost: it significantly helps if you miss the first two minutes of the film that a large chunk of the game away. This first sequence also sets up the main characters you’ll meet throughout the film: Bokeem Woodbine as chipper-but-sarcastic side-kick cop Maddox, Michael C. Hall as by-the-rules senior cop Holt, and Rachel Keller as suspiciously under-developed wife Jean. All doing a grand job, all speaking their lines in suitably world weary and stoic manners as they brood through life. Everything falls into place, and the audience is hand delivered enough to feel one-step-ahead of the cast.
Skip forward nine years, and things have changed in ways signposted by chunky exposition, highlighted background actions, and heavy cutaway sequences. More killings happen, more impossible events happen, and more brooding is performed to demonstrate how you should feel. The pacing stays slow and steady, generating a kind of pseudo-tension that never gets into real excitement. The genre switches deftly from police-drama to slice-of-life social-politics, and the audience is once again put one step ahead of the character. And so it continues: four 30-minute chunks of plot development with nine years between each and enough breadcrumbs to ensure you never feel lost. Characters evolve through makeup and key signifies, the genre changes by necessity and careful guidance, and the soundtrack keeps everything measured and somber.
For a film that claims to be genre defying it manages to fit neatly into the pigeon-hole of “way less smart than it thinks it is”. This is deeply frustrating, as were it to have shaved an easy 30 minutes off it’s running time and made its mind up as to what it wanted to be then it could have been either a fun puzzler or a moving emotional kicker. By trying to be both, and being worried that fans of one need their hands holding to explain the other, it manages to be neither. Somehow a film where we see multiple people’s brains pour out of their faces manages to be timid. Something trying to be timely and evocative ends up being distant and dull. It manages to be okay on almost every level, even toning down the performances of normally impressive actors so that nothing goes beyond a steady “alright, I guess”.
It is watchable, but once it’s done all you’ll be left with is a fleeting sense of “what the heck was it trying to say?” as everything else is so clearly presented. It fails to bring new life to some old genres, and it molly-coddles defeat from the soft-play area of victory. If this is the bright new future of film then it looks very much like Sunday afternoon made-for-TV with a blue-grey filter. And the most depressing thing is that it’ll make back the money and it’ll rack up a fandom. Because Netflix knows what it’s doing, it has seen into our hearts, and it is giving us the future that our own choices have wrought upon us.
In The Shadow Of The Moon is available on Netflix now.