To look at its key art, you’d think that Adam Marino’s Beneath the Leaves features a team-up between Mira Sorvino and her father Paul as their characters, whose grim faces dominate the posters, hunt for a serial killer. Actually, the elder Sorvino is barely in the film, playing an out-of-breath police captain supervising his daughter’s Detective Shotwell and her partner Larson (Kristoffer Polaha) — the latter of whom has a traumatic history with the recently escaped killer. Playing up the family angle looks like a desperate attempt to draw attention to a dull policier whose seemingly sincere interest in PTSD and abuse doesn’t make up for its lack of inspiration. Commercial prospects are very slim; few viewers will be excited to learn that, according to IMDb, the first-time director already has another feature in post.
A prelude in which a sexually abused girl and her brother burn down the house containing their tormentor suggests, wrongly, that we’ll be seeing more of the brave girl. The tough woman we’re about to meet is unrelated. Detective Shotwell may be a good aim, but she’s not well liked in her department, for reasons the movie doesn’t care to explain; she does have a quiet affair going with her partner, which is about to make it hard to do her job.
Larson was one of four foster brothers who were kidnapped decades ago, held captive by a deranged man (Doug Jones’ Whitley) with a thing for fingernails and a bizarre grudge against the concept of foster parenting. Whitley likes killing kids so they can rejoin their biological parents in the afterlife, or something like that, evidently not minding that many foster kids’ real parents were well worth escaping. He’s been in jail since cops rescued Larson and his brothers, and the young men had varying degrees of success moving on with their lives.
When Whitley sets fire to his prison and escapes with a few other convicts, Larson’s chief understandably refuses to let him work the case, assigning Shotwell a temporary new partner, Abrams. (The screenplay works hard to turn Abrams’ eccentricities into the film’s sole comic relief, but these scenes flop hard.) Covertly trying to track the killer, Larson also seeks out his brothers: Greasy-spoon cook Matthew (Christopher Backus) is easy to find, but one is AWOL, and another, unbeknownst to Larson, has already fallen victim to Whitley.
A by-the-book script and stiff direction fail to milk any suspense from this scenario and, in the absence of thrills, the picture’s heavy focus on the long-lasting impact of trauma is suffocating. Sorvino and Polaha have no chemistry in their scenes away from the action, and some viewers who have admired the actress’ vocal contributions to current harassment/assault debates will cringe at a scene where the lines “You want me to go?” and “Yes” are treated as an invitation to sex. Jones, most often seen under creature makeup, brings a few physical flourishes to his cookie-cutter psycho role, but not nearly enough to make it memorable.
Production company: Reel Fire Entertainment
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Mira Sorvino, Kristoffer Polaha, Christopher Backus, Paul Sorvino, Doug Jones, Ser’Darius Blain, Melora Walters, Aaron Farb
Director: Adam Marino
Screenwriters: Naman Barsoom, Daniel Wallner, Mark Wilson
Producers: Ivett Havasi, Tommy Kijas, Beau Turpin
Executive producers: Adam Marino, Lawrence Marino
Director of photography: Chaz Olivier
Production designer: Astrid Anderson
Costume designer: Arin Burke
Editor: Eric Strand
Composer: Attila Fodor
Casting director: Ivett Havasi