If you see veteran screen heavy Kim Coates in a velour dinner jacket in a thriller, you can’t go far wrong figuring “Well, he’s playing the Devil.” Wherever his career’s taken him — “Waterworld,” “Black Hawk Down, “Sons of Anarchy” — his look in his mature years can be sinister to the point of satanic.
But his presence is a puzzlement in the thriller “Neon Lights,” a movie so obscurant that even its title makes little to no sense.
We see him growling into the ear of a tech tycoon (Dana Abraham, who scripted this) just before the soft-voiced twitcher is interviewed on TV, where he melts down.
He’s whispering in Clay’s ear as he readies to meet his long-estranged family at a remote 1920s mansion. Is this man “the staff” of the mansion, a particularly pushy “I call, you answer” investor? An apparition in Clay’s head? A demon?
Then we notice that he has a reflection, that others seem to see him even if they don’t seem to know who or what he is any more than we do. And we puzzle some more.
The timid, cracking-up Clay tries to convince bully brother Benny (René Escobar Jr), Benny’s wife (Brit MacRae), other low-life brother James (Stephen Tracey) and niece Blair (Erika Swayze) that he just wanted to reconnect, to show them a swell time now that’s he doing well.
But he’s shell-shocked, “off the grid” as his company preps for an IPO, with rumors he may “lose my company.” And this fellow in the dinner jacker keeps muttering “Into the shadows Clay must go” and “You need to deal with your problems like a man.“
As we’ve seen Clay, shaken and bloodied in the film’s opening shot, we can guess what that might entail. His “personal demons” might be these generally unpleasant relations visiting him.
They just want to know “Why are we here?” and “You losing your marbles, bro?”
The script obscures the relationships, who exactly connects to whom, with characters not necessarily looking like each other and Blair calling those we assume to be her parents by their first names.
Clay is baited and bullied, people start to go through some things and Clay — seen in intermittent moments of psychotherapy and physical therapy — keeps telling himself “I’m not crazy, I’m not crazy.”
The Bangladesh-born Abraham, raised in Canada, is a young bit player who wrote and helped round up the cash for this star vehicle, which is basically a showcase for him playing whimpering timidity, mental mania and meltdowns.
All well and good, or at least adequate. But as a screenwriter his star vehicle has organizational problem and a twisty story in which all the energy is devoted to keeping those twists from being obvious.
The group dynamic he sets up is promising, the “What’s REALLY going on?” solutions a lot less interesting, bordering on nonsensical.
And Abraham, who has a sort of Bangladeshi nebbish Michael Stuhlbarg vibe, does well enough by this character’s twitches, persecution complex and cowering. But Clay isn’t remotely the most compelling character in a move about Clay, what’s in his head or what might really be happening to him.
Coates reminds us of this every time he’s on the screen. He’s a riveting presence, even in the worst movies. “Neon Lights” isn’t necessarily one of those. But it’s close.
Rating: R for violence, language, some sexual content and drug use.
Cast: Dana Abraham, Brit MacRae, Erika Swayze, Stephen Tracey, René Escobar Jr. and Kim Coates.
Credits: Directed by Rouzbeh Heydari, scripted by Dana Abraham. An eOne/Momentum release.
Running time: 1:34