In the Shadow of the Moon
Director – Jim Mickle
Cast – Boyd Holbrook, Cleopatra Coleman, Michael C Hall, Bokeem Woodbine
Unfolding across increasingly clumsy chapters, the Matryoshka style structure of In the Shadow of the Moon overly simplifies a film that should have ideally inspired stimulating debate. Directed by the very talented Jim Mickle, the new Netflix thriller combines elements of police procedurals and time travel; detective fiction and social drama — but its reach always exceeds its grasp.
Spanning nearly four decades, In the Shadow of the Moon sort of reinvents itself with every act — it is told in four — as one man goes on an obsessive quest to solve a mystery that has plagued him his entire life.
Watch the In the Shadow of the Moon trailer here
It begins in 1988, when a handful of people die under mysterious circumstances, and an enterprising police officer finds himself in the middle of the investigation. Tom Lockhart, played by the always reliable Boyd Holbrook, sees it as an opportunity to get a promotion — his wife is due any day, and they could always use some more money. With a shiny new detective’s badge egging him on, Tom conducts a couple of clandestine inquiries and learns that the deaths are connected. The prime suspect is a young black woman; the only identifying mark is an injury on her hand.
It was at this point that the film revealed the first of its many twists, and it will be difficult to discuss it further without talking about the plot, but it would be unfair to reveal any more details. Which leaves us both in an odd situation. You could, like me, watch the film cold — no trailers, nothing — and read about it later. Or you could continue reading at the risk of learning (minor) spoilers.
Michael C Hall in a still from In the Shadow of the Moon.
The twists in this film aren’t as shocking as they are underwhelming. This isn’t to say that they are predictable, but that these story beats could have been handled more elegantly. The best plot twists allow the viewer to arrive at conclusions themselves. It shows a respect on the film’s part, and certainly makes you feel good about yourself. But what In the Shadow of the Moon does, instead, is to have a character explain the latest developments to Tom. By snatching away his ability to deduce these details by himself, the film ostensibly tells the viewer that it can’t really count on them to keep up.
More than the viewing experience, this approach harms the film itself. By explaining verbally what should have ideally been shown, the film dilutes some of the more grandiose themes of writers Gregory Weidman and Geoff Tock’s screenplay.
There are some very timely, and ultimately affecting ideas at play here, including a subtle undercurrent of race relations, and the suggestion that people are inherently decent, but are tragically prone to letting anger and fear cloud their judgement. I wish Mickle could have found a way to reconcile some of these magnificent, humanist concepts with the personal narrative that he is clearly more comfortable tackling.
Bokeem Woodbine, Boyd Holbrook and Michael C Hall in a still from In the Shadow of the Moon.
But in fairness, very few filmmakers have the ability to tell a science-fiction story that is at once epic and intimate. Christopher Nolan is a champion of the form, as is Alex Garland; Jeff Nichols came close with Midnight Special recently; and Jaco Van Dormael won a lifelong membership to the club thanks to his cult classic Mr Nobody.
Perhaps a bigger budget could have done justice to In the Shadow of the Moon — it would have allowed Mickle to expand the scope of the film, and take us to places that he can only describe now. But regardless of how much money he had, the film has a wonderfully grainy, analogue look to it that appears to be a nod to some of director James Cameron’s early work. Certainly, the idea of a morally grey time-travelling assassin from the future should be a clue as to just how deeply indebted Mickle is to Cameron with this film.
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I found myself enjoying certain chapters of In the Shadow of the Moon more than others, but tellingly, none of them could match the witty energy of the opening bit. There is a lot to admire in the film — Boyd Holbrook is particularly good as the relentless Tom — but I fear that its appeal might be restricted to fans of the genre.