Movie Review: A murder unsolved, a romance tested — “The Violent Heart”

The final act of a thriller is where the payoff lies.

We’ve invested in the characters and relationships. We fear for them, and as we do, the suspense should build to the point where it weighs on you.

“The Violent Heart” has that weight about it right from the start. And if the climax seems wanting, perhaps one twist too many, it still doesn’t spoil the mystery we see unfold and the solutions we have time to consider over its 100 or so minutes.

A 13 year-old gearhead (Jordan Preston Carter of “Shaft”) trouble-shoots his motorbike, and wonders why his sister (Rayven Symone Ferrell) has turned all clingy on him.

She doesn’t seem that thrilled when their Marine officer Dad comes home on leave. Later that night, Daniel follows Wendy when she sneaks out with a suitcase and slips into a stranger’s car. He trails her and her lover into the woods, hears shots, and stumbles into the grave that the man he just saw embracing her dropped her into.

Years later, Daniel (Jovan Adepo of “Fences” and “Watchmen”) is a quiet, sad-faced and withdrawn 24 year-old mechanic with dreams of following his Dad into the Corps.

So when the cute high school senior Cassie (Grace Van Patten of “The Wilde Wedding” and The Meyerowitz Stories”) with a busted serpentine belt begs a ride off him, he’s wary. When she calls him later that night, he’s leery. Beyond leery.

“Why ISN’T it a good idea?” she wants to know.

“It just isn’t.”

Daniel has a past we’ve seen, and more past that we haven’t. Cassie has no idea about either of these two big pieces of who he is. And Daniel, cautious as any young Black man would be about the attentions of a blonde teen in rural Tennessee, doesn’t know what happened to Cassie at school.

She caught her English teacher-dad (Lukas Haas) locked in his class after hours with a colleague. Mom (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) doesn’t know. Is Cassie acting-out by being all flirty and forward? Was she interested in Daniel before this?

Writer-director Karem Senga (“Trigger Finger,” “The First Girl I Loved”) takes a decent shot at misdirecting us here and there. But we know the trauma of Daniel’s childhood will come back up, and we might have a clue how.

Adepo plays Daniel as focused but damaged. The attentions of a very pretty and, as she bluntly suggests, of legal consent, young woman are a distraction he’s never had.

Van Patten makes Cassie naive to the point of reckless. We get no hint of guile or revenge against Dad in this sudden interest in a handsome mechanic, but we wonder.

Haas comes off as the doting Dad from the start, a bit rattled by what his daughter almost walked in on, or thinks she walked in on.

And Mary J. Blige brings gravitas and compassion to Nina, Daniel’s mother, a woman struggling to get him on the right track and correct the other kid under her roof, Aaron (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) before he makes a wrong turn.

Senga’s film is overcast and grey, first scene to last, which contributes to a downbeat tone, an unease that isn’t shaken by the illusion of this ray of light that’s come into Daniel’s life. We never buy it, and truthfully, as nice as the chemistry is, that relationship seems more a plot necessity than anything with serious cost-benefit value to either character.

But if you’re willing to take teenage-impulsiveness at face value, let it slide. Even the twists at the end don’t deviate from the message, a burden Daniel’s carried his entire life.

“Anger is tricky…You carry it around with you long enough, you stop noticing. You become an angry person.”

MPA Rating: unrated, violent, sexuality

Cast: Jovan Adepo, Grace Van Patten, Lukas Haas, Jordan Preston Carter, Rayven Symone Ferrell, Kimberly Williams-Paisley and Mary J. Blige

Credits: Scripted and directed by Karem Senga. A Gravitas Ventures release.

Running time: 1:42

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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