Funny that no one ever thought to pair up screen veterans Richard Schiff and Ricky Jay as brothers before. They look alike, and have this complimentary intensity — Schiff (“The West Wing”) and his quiet, simmering, rational rage, Mamet-pal Jay with his scary, streetwise and dangerous edge.
They aren’t the leads, but they’re the heart and driving force of “The Automatic Hate,” an indie family mystery masquerading as a puzzling, misguided romance.
Davis Green (“Lincoln”) is a Boston chef with a weepy, highly-strung ballerina girlfriend (Deborah Ann Woll). One night their romantic idyll is unsettled by this equally weepy, oh-so fetching blond (Adelaide Clemens of “The Great Gatsby”) who tells Davis “I’m your cousin, Alexis Green!”
That’s odd, because Davis knows his father (Schiff) was an only child. Oh no, Alexis assures him. “I’m not a crazy person.”
She then proceeds to act like one, insisting on a too-too-friendly hug that sets off the ballerina. And how.
But Davis is intrigued. He asks his developmental psychologist dad, who denies everything, discovers a clue in the attic, and questions demented granddad about the issue.
“We do not TALK about Joshua,” the old man rants.
Davis follows his curiosity to rural upstate New York, where he discovers a hippy branch of the family — three rowdy, vulgar daughters and their ex-flower child parents — running a thrift store, a farm and a medical marijuana dispensary.
Things go a bit sideways at this point, at least for me. Confronted by the coarseness of his blood-kin peers and the outright hostility of his “uncle” (Jay), Davis declares he’s not “afraid of what’s going on.” He should be. There’s bad blood here. The clues are laughably obvious (old home movies), the menace palpable.
And the kindest words his uncle has are “It’s easy to despite somebody from a distance.”
“The Automatic Hate” is a tricky melodrama to get a handle on, because characters — Davis, in particular, but others too — keep behaving in ways that defy reason. The “hate” may be automatic, but common sense dictates caution, and caution is thrown to the wind for reasons of plot convenience and cinematic prurience.
Both fathers have something they’re hiding from their children. But do their spouses know the crime at the heart of their dispute? We can see the train wreck Davis is wading into, why can’t he?
The elders of the cast steal the show from the heavy breathing youngsters, and the inevitable family dinner confrontation is a doozy.
But “The Automatic Hate” winds up a thoughtful puzzle of a movie that doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, a slice of Southern Gothic displaced into rural, redneck New York that loses something in the geographic translation.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with sexual situations, nudity, profanity
Running time: 1:37