“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
So utters Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III. Michael says this line after he finds out that he has been double-crossed and is forced back into the mafia lifestyle he has tried to leave after a lifetime of crime that has filled him with regret.
This quote kept running through my head while I was watching Aharon Keshales’s crime drama South of Heaven. This is a movie about a former convict who wants nothing more than to get out of prison and fulfill a promise to his longtime girlfriend and live as normal of a life as possible. But those who live a life of a crime know that getting out is never easy.
Jason Sudeikis stars as Jimmy Roy, a man who has been incarcerated for fifteen years for armed robbery. When Jimmy gets word that his girlfriend Annie (Evangeline Lilly) has been diagnosed with lung cancer, Jimmy wants nothing more than to be released from prison and give Annie the wedding he has promised before she passes away. Everything seems to be going smoothly for Jimmy until his scummy parole office (Shea Whigham) offers Jimmy a job that leads him and Annie down a dark path back into the life Jimmy desperately wanted to leave.
Most know Sudeikis for his comedic turns on TV in Saturday Night Live and Ted Lasso and in movies like Horrible Bosses and We’re the Millers, but Sudeikis is making a nice resume for himself as a dramatic actor. Along with films like Race and Colossal, South Heaven puts Sudeikis in another dramatic performance and further proves how good of a dramatic actor he can be. This is one of the best performances of Jason Sudeikis’s career and the darkest role I have seen him play. Sudeikis makes us sympathize with Jimmy and his want to just live happily with Annie and you begin to feel bad for him when he gets caught up in the crime lifestyle again. But as the movie goes on, who Jimmy is and what his intentions are become somewhat of a mystery. Is he putting on an act? Did he have a plan all along that he knew would cause his relationship trouble and keep him in the criminal life? It’s a tight-rope act that Sudeikis is playing, yet he balances it with ease and skill.
Sudeikis gets some assistance from a great supporting cast. Lilly is the emotional center of the film. Annie’s love for Jimmy is undeniable. Much like Jimmy wants nothing more than to be with Annie, Annie wants nothing more than to be with Jimmy. She wants to help him with any problems and issues and just wants them to be happy during her final days. Shea Whigham is terrifyingly sleazy as the sketchy parole officer who is up to more than it appears, and Mike Colter gives a scene-stealing performance as a suave, intimidating local crime boss who Jimmy crosses paths with.
This is Keshales’s American debut following the violently fun Rabbies and the brilliantly twisted Big Bad Wolves (he also directed the segment “F” in the horror anthology film, The ABC’s of Death II) and he solidifies himself as an exciting young voice behind the camera. South of Heaven is a slightly different tone from Rabbies and Big Bad Wolves, two films the lie mostly in the horror genre. Though South of Heaven does feature some horrifically violent scenes that are effective and shocking, the film focuses more on the drama between the characters and the love story at the center. It runs a little long and overstays its welcome, but the film is full of unexpected moments, interesting characters, and a tense and unpredictable plot. But Keshales makes sure the story of Jimmy and Annie is at the center, which gives the film a lot of heart and elevates the stakes of the film.
Though not having made a movie in nearly a decade, Keshales didn’t lose a step and made an interesting, tense crime thriller in South of Heaven. Led by a great Jason Sudeikis and a strong supporting cast, South of Heaven is a gripping look at one man’s mission to leave a life of crime to spend time with the woman he loves.
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