U.S. award-winning crime novelist Nancy Pickard published “The Scent Of Rain and Lightning” in 2010 and now, seven years later, its film adaptation has been released. Directed by Blake Robbins (“The Sublime And Beautiful“) and based on the adapted screenplay by Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison, the film centers on the story of Jody (Maika Monroe), a young woman living in the American Midwest who just learned the man arrested for the murder of her parents has been released from jail. It is Jody’s family that informs her that Billy (Brad Carter) has had his sentence commuted by the governor and is now again a free man. Consumed by grief and anger, Jody hopes to confront him and investigate the reasons that led to his release.
It’s the sort of news that provokes a whirlwind of emotions in any person, and Maika Monroe plays them well. From physical to emotional reactions, Monroe — whom audiences may be familiar with from the indie horror hit “It Follows” — beautifully conveys an impressive and believable range of expressions. Her nails, bitten to the quick, reveal some of the internal issues she deals with, hinting at repressed feelings and fears. On top of it all, however, is a desire to uncover the truth about the events surrounding her parents’ murders.
Jody is surrounded by men who believe they know what’s best for her. Her grandfather, Senior (Will Patton), removes her from her childhood home to a family ranch for reasons of safety, a guy she sleeps with wants to “come clean about their relationship” in front of her whole family without properly consulting her first, her uncles mostly see her as fragile and scarred. And yet, her resilience and strength allow her to break free from conventions and expectations surrounding women where she comes from. Gradually, Jody becomes aware that to investigate and uncover the truth about the case is also to challenge these same conventions and to be able to learn more about herself and her family. Did they ever tell her the whole story?
Intertwined with scenes from the present are also bits and pieces from when Jody’s parents were still alive. Her mother Laurie is played by Maggie Grace, and her marriage to Hugh Jay (Justin Chatwin), a cowboy-lookalike, macho, gun-loving man like all others in his family, seems to be dictated by strict and traditional gender roles. At times, it feels confusing to watch both stories play alongside one another. Although separated by over a decade, there seems to be virtually no time difference between them, and they could both be set in present time. Characters involved look unchanged, and it seems not much has changed, if at all.
While the gap between the stories may initially seem wide and unsurmountable, it gradually becomes clearer which roles each person played, and how the events of the past and present are connected. This is, ultimately, a slow-burning story that requires commitment and focus from the viewers, but rewards them with characters that are properly constructed and reactions that are comprehensible once we learn more about each person, their relationships to one another and to the community.
For the investigation, Jody finds an unlikely partner in Billy’s son, Collin (Logan Miller), who helps her revisit case files and talk to police officers and witnesses. Collin’s father is a violent man whose temper is exposed more than once. Brad Carter’s delivery strongly illustrates this, even if sometimes he seems like a stereotypical image of a midwestern white criminal. Billy’s behavior makes audiences believe that he may very well be responsible for committing the crimes for which he spent the last 12 years in jail for, but the further Jody goes into questioning the mainstream narrative, the more we feel there’s still a lot left to be discovered. When the Law of Holes appears in front of Jody, she chooses to ignore it and keep digging. How destructive is the anger Billy has towards her family? And, most importantly, what are the reasons behind it?
The camerawork recreates well the feelings of confusion, disconnection, and incompleteness that permeate the story: its constant movement, half-found focus and a number of unorthodox angles give audiences a lingering feeling that something is constantly missing, that we’re not yet seeing a full picture of whatever reality we’re being exposed to, a feeling also complemented by the mystery-inducing music score by Will and Brooke Blair (from indie thriller hits “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room“). At times, excessive movement makes it hard to connect to every bit of the story. At other moments, however, it leaves us purposely far and in the dark, almost like anthropologists, observers who couldn’t, and shouldn’t, react nor interfere, even when it becomes quite clear things are heading in a particularly destructive direction.
Its explosive and fast-paced conclusion, highly contrasting with the rest of the story, but properly built and fully comprehensible by then, serves as a powerful reminder of what can happen when one attempts to masquerade reality and manipulate people for so long. Although confrontational, violent and life-changing, one would dare call it also freeing and liberating, and there’s certainly beauty in that. [B+]
“The Scent of Rain and Lightning” premiered at the Atlanta Film And Video Festival. There is no distribution for the film just yet.