There is nothing finer in the cinema than a simple, well-acted and well-crafted thriller.
“Delia’s Gone” checks off all of those boxes in a brisk but methodical and unhurried mystery set in rural Ohio.
Damn, it’s good.
You know who’s always good? Marisa Tomei. You know who else fits that description? That Paul Walter Hauser of “Richard Jewell.”
And if you haven’t been paying attention to Stephan James (“Race,” “If Beale Street Could Talk”), “Delia’s Gone” is a reminder that maybe you’d better.
“Delia’s Gone” is a Buckeye Gothic tale of murder and revenge about a man wrongly imprisoned for the death of his sister. The million dollar hook in writer-director Robert Budreau’s screenplay? The wrongly-imprisoned man is “on the spectrum,” or has a childhood brain injury that mimics the symptoms, as the staff shrink at the facility where he’s living puts it.
How might “Rainman” reason out what really happened to his dead sister, once he realizes he’s been set up? Will he go “John Wick?” Or is “Memento” the template for this confused man-child of selective memory, distracted by the most random things — birds and their behavior, for starters?
James is Louis, 30something and living in a small town with his sister, Delia (Genelle Williams, far better than she was in Netflix’s “The Holiday Calendar”). He’s reasonably independent, can drive himself to work at the hardware store, cook and so on. But she’s just been laid off and has to tell him she’s got to move to take another job.
Even though we’ve seen her ensure by extra-legal means that Louis has a ready supply of his medications — “Some things you can only get with a gun,” she tells him — Louis does not take her news well. He lashes out, and she leaves. He drinks, and the next morning he wakes up in a fog with her body on the kitchen floor of the house they grew up in.
The sheriff (Tomei) and deputy (Hauser) know him, but take his confused answers to their questions as a confession. He guiltily remembers he hurt his sister, not how she ended up dead. And that’s his ticket to prison.
But years later, a man who knew Delia and subsequently “found God” visits him. Stacker Cole (Travis Fimmel) starts talking about “that night,” and Louis snaps. It’s his first clue that he didn’t murder Delia, and this guy — tossed out of the facility for triggering our hero — knows who did. Louis impulsively breaks out with just two “memories” to cling to — reciting them over and over to direct his quest.
“Billy Dyson lives in Downey. Stacker Cole’s at the tavern.”
The sheriff’s now a state police detective still prone to insulting and bullying her former deputy, who is now sheriff. But the way she answers his “I’ve got it” when this “escape” call goes out goes beyond mere put-down, and gets a firm side-eye from lumpy, frumpy and slow Sheriff Bo.
Tomei doesn’t get a lot of roles that remind us they don’t give Oscars to slouches, and she is all over this mean and bitter tough broad whose ties to this case are small towns in a nutshell. Everybody’s related. Everybody knows everybody else.
Williams makes a sharp impression in just a couple of scenes — a downtrodden, lonely woman maybe a little bitter herself at the trap that having to stay with her brother has represented.
Hauser’s developed a distinct character actor “brand,” the hapless “I, Tonya/Richard Jewell” slowpoke everybody under-estimates.
And James goes deep into character as mental tween more comfortable talking and bargaining with small children — “stranger danger” be damned — than wringing answers out of potentially violent adults. He is a revelation.
Too many “on the spectrum” performances seem artificial, with behavioral parameters dictated by the necessities of the screenplay. James makes every word Louis says and every impulse he follows feel in the moment and organic.
“Delia’s Gone” never wholly transcends formula, and when it strays from expectations it seems on more uncertain ground. But Budreau, who wrote and directed Ethan Hawke’s fine Chet Baker jazz biopic “Born to be Blue,” bathes his film in overcast, sets his characters up with the sparest of sketches and then runs the table with them like a pool hustler with a film camera.
I say again, damn, it’s good.
Rating: R, violence, some profanity
Cast: Stephen James, Marisa Tomei, Travis Fimmel, Genelle Williams and Paul Walter Hauser
Credits: Scripted and directed by Robert Budreau. A Vertical release.
Running time: 1:31