There isn’t a whole lot to “A Violent Separation,” a B-movie that reaches for “thriller” and never quite shakes “melodrama” in the process.
But it has tension and mild suspense built into its bones, and a topicality that you wonder if co-directors Michael and Kevin Goetz or screenwriter Michael Arkoff wholly appreciated.
It’s predicated on a set of anecdotal evidence truisms that a lot of us carry around with us. The first is that rural America’s gun culture consists of a lot of careless people, something that every weekend’s “accidental shooting” count bears out. And the second is that if anybody knows what it takes to get away with something, it’s a cop.
Ray and Norman Young (Ben Robson and Brenton Thwaites) are rural Missouri siblings who remain close despite the fact that one’s a cop and the other has more than his share of scrapes with the law on his record.
Ray’s a drinker, a brawler and a womanizer, which Abbey Campbell (Claire Holt) has to shrug off, if she harbors any thoughts of permanent attachment. She had a child with another man, so Ray figures “cheating begets cheating” and all’s fair in honky tonk romances.
Norman’s a boyish sheriff’s deputy who can never quite get around to sparking Abbey’s sister Frances (Alycia Debnam-Carey). She makes a joke about his handcuffs, and he’s too clueless to catch on. It’s like that.
The sisters and Abbey’s son live with their sickly dad (Gerald McRaney), keeping him going through his emphysema.
Like Ray, they have no visible means of support.
Then, after a night of drinking and boot-scooting at the Whisperin’ Pig Roadhouse, Abbey distracts Ray from the barmaid he’s been carrying on with (an Eastwood daughter, Francesca) and the bar fight he’s just gotten into over insults aimed at Abbey.
“I want you to teach me to shoot!”
That’s how “the accident” happens. That’s how “the cover-up” begins.
Norman’s boss, the sheriff (the great Ted Levine of “Monk” and “Silence of the Lambs”) isn’t the sort you can easily pull one over on. But Norman, knowing what he knows, does.
He’s at the sheriff’s elbow as the “timeline” is established, Frances and her Dad answer questions and things point just enough towards Ray that the sheriff feels the need to ask his deputy, “You OK with this?” Eventually, even the sheriff figures out “You’re too close and this don’t look right.”
And as the trail goes cold, the seasons change and the words of “Old Bob” (Cotton Yancey) shift the narrative’s gears.
“Sometimes you just gotta let time do its thing.”
The Goetzes make good use of the Louisiana-subbing-for-Missouri locations, the “Miller’s Crossing” pines without the overcast and Coen Brothers guiding sensibility to help them.
The dialogue can be chicken fried or hard boiled, but it’s generally of the predictable “I f—-d up, f—-d up bad!” variety.
There’s not a lot of urgency here, little sense that the walls are closing in on the brothers even as the clues start to point their way and you know and I know and they suspect that the sheriff must know, Frances might know and her old man sure as hell knows.
But “A Violent Separation” almost sustains itself with the understated performances, especially by Robson (TV’s “Animal Kingdom”), Debnam-Carey (“Fear the Walking Dead”), Holt (“Pretty Little Liars”) and Levine, the rare American in this mostly Aussie and British cast.
And there are some nice moments of routine but skilled parallel constructions — the first interrogation begins and we see cut-aways of the tracking dogs, who figure this thing out before anybody else does; one brother engages in a little carnal escape, and the other likewise manages the same.
You get what the filmmakers were going for, even if they can’t quite bring themselves to trimming this down to the leaner, less cluttered neo noir it wants to be.
MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, explicit sex, alcohol abuse, profanity.
Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Ben Robson, Alycia Debnam-Carey, Ted Levine, Gerald McRaney and Francesca Eastwood
Credits: Directed by Kevin Goetz and Michael Goetz, script by Michael Arkof A Screen Media release.
Running time: 1:48