SOUTH OF HEAVEN— 2 STARS
Thanks to his recent Emmy win as the TV sensation of Ted Lasso, Jason Sudeikis has climbed a ladder rung or two to become a head-turning commodity, dare I say an A-lister. His casted presence is now going to get a project noticed. The prospect of South of Heaven, where Jason drops the comedy schtick to prove himself in more dramatic material, may intrigue enough curiosity to become appointment viewing.
Anyone who’s watched Sudeikis knows the Everyman archetype suits his charm and talent. The independent film South of Heaven from Big Bad Wolves director Aharon Keshales challenges Jason to take a podunk pariah that has been pushed into a corner and unravel him to commit violence to defend himself and the honor of the woman he loves against his better judgment and softhearted morals. It is indeed a very valiant turn within a movie that tailspins wide of the mark behind him.
Sudeikis plays Jimmy Ray, a hard luck con who has scored parole after 12 years behind bars after a botched armed robbery. What swayed Jimmy’s release was the fact that his loyal girlfriend Annie, played by Ant Man and the Wasp star Evangeline Lilly, has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and given mere months to live. She has happily awaited his return, and Jimmy is firmly determined not to screw it up.
LESSON #1: MAKING THE MOST OF BORROWED TIME— Feeling a little thicker in age and a little wiser from his young-and-dumb mistakes, Jimmy aims to do right by Annie’s devotion. His wish is to properly get married in Mexico and give Annie the best final year of her life. The two share the desire to skip all of the woulda-coulda-shouldas that came with the shame of the last twelve years. The porch-rocking and hand-holding present and future are all that matter and rightfully so.
The trouble is too many cocklebur hooks of the lowly local seediness Jimmy returns home to thwart those hopes. Jimmy’s loading dock job to make ends meet attaches him to the crooked parole officer Schmidt (professional movie villain Shea Whigham) and his careless old friend Frank (Jeremy Bobb of Jessica Jones) trying to get him back into crime. A violent freak accident while on a job for Schmidt provokes the hunting attention of the pillar-of-the-community local crime boss Whit Price (Luke Cage’s Mike Colter).
That development leads to a continuous collapse of more bloody dominoes from the midway point of the movie onward which derails the movie and Jimmy’s path to happiness just a week into his freedom. What was shaping up to be a hardscrabble story of loving redemption in South of Heaven crosses lines and gets dipped into an ugly muck of unwelcome grime. With these dark curveballs, Keshales and his fellow writers Navot Papushado (Gunpowder Milkshake) and debuting Kai Mark are aiming for the hillbilly noir vibe and sure get it.
The trouble is that smear and stench takes away from very endearing efforts from Sudeikis and Lilly as one of the better on-screen coupling seen this year. Their shared scenes carry a very affecting mutual fondness that lifts the entire movie when featured. If this is a gear Jason Sudeikis can regularly achieve, more of it will be welcome in future films. The same can be said for Evangeline Lilly who hasn’t received many roles of this substance outside of her Marvel Cinematic Universe work. Try as they may, Jason’s gentle smirks and Evangeline’s wide, resilient smile are nearly contagious enough to heal the movie’s gashes for brutality.
South of Heaven stumbles with a pair of tit-for-tat kidnappings. Mike Colter is clearly reheating his well-spoken heavy act from his five-year guest run on The Good Wife. His Whit shares a very good crossroads scene with Lilly where he learns why Annie has no panic or fear with her captivity. It softens him slightly only for the ruthless retribution to quickly return when the script demands its trigger-happy behavior. On the other side, Jimmy has nabbed Whit’s spoiled son (a hilarious Thaddeus J. Mixson from Safety) and plays an unwitting, silly babysitter to a kid who drops the incriminating question of “Is this amateur hour or something?”
LESSON #2: ROMANCE AND VIOLENCE DON’T OFTEN MIX WELL— By the time simple blackmail and those kidnappings escalate into gross dismemberments and preposterous gun-wielding gauntlets, South of Heaven has taken too many jarring leaps of tone. Sure, affable nice guys will do extreme things when backed into a corner, but going from a sweet and doting schlub to a one-shot-killing henchmen destroyer gets really implausible in a hurry. Either Jimmy and Annie are too good for this movie or the movie failed around them. The latter seems more precise.