“Slow-burning” is the most apt description of Blake Robbins’ Midwestern gothic mystery based on Nancy Pickard’s 2010 novel. Reminiscent of Winter’s Bone and offering a similarly powerful leading role to its young star Maika Monroe, The Scent of Rain and Lightning is a well-acted, intelligent thriller that ultimately rewards the viewer’s patience even if it too often sacrifices narrative clarity in favor of atmosphere.
The central character, twentysomething Jody Linder (Monroe), is informed at the story’s beginning that the person who murdered both her parents several years ago has just been released from prison after his sentence was commuted. Desperate to learn more about what led to the brutal slayings, she confronts the man, Billy (Brad Carter), at his home. He’s hardly repentant, displaying a menacing attitude that fails to deter Jody. “I’m not afraid of you,” she tells him, although anyone would have a right to be.
Jody soon learns that, despite his violent tendencies, Billy’s guilt may not be as cut-and-dry as she been led to believe. She begins making inquiries, asking her relatives if he received a fair trial and the sheriff if he had questioned any other suspects. Billy’s sympathetic son Collin (Logan Miller) tells her that he lied to the authorities, falsely claiming that his father had left the house during the time of the murders because he wanted to see him sent to prison.
Working from a screenplay by Jeff Robison and Casey Twenter, who previously collaborated on 2014”s Rudderless, director Blake Robbins (The Sublime and Beautiful) interweaves the present-day story with scenes set several years in the past involving Jody’s parents (Maggie Grace, Justin Chatwin). There’s little in the way of visual devices to differentiate the time eras, with the result that those not paying very close attention may find themselves confused at times. In addition, the male characters are sometimes hard to tell apart as well, since apparently in this part of the country men are required by law to wear beards.
The storyline’s climactic revelation isn’t as surprising or satisfying as it might have been, but what leads up to it is quietly engrossing. The filmmaker, utilizing the drab color tones that seem di rigueur for these types of stories, ratchets up the tension slowly but surely, aided by Will and Brooke Blair’s tense musical score and Lyn Moncrief’s handheld photography that makes evocative use of the barren Oklahoma locations.
The acting is first-rate throughout, with Monroe, who previously impressed in such films as It Follows and The Guest, delivering a forceful but nuanced leading turn that makes her character sympathetic throughout. The supporting performances are equally effective, even if it’s frustrating that such terrific veteran actors as Will Patton and Bonnie Bedelia, as Jody’s grandparents, are given relatively little to do. Carter proves mesmerizing as the violent Billy, who, even if he may not have actually committed the murders, seems more than capable of it.
Production companies: KP’s Remain, No Coast Entertainment
Distributor: SP Releasing
Cast: Maika Monroe, Mark Webber, Will Patton, Bonnie Bedelia, Justin Chatwin, Brad Carter, Logan Miller, Maggie Grace
Director: Blake Robinson
Screenwriters: Jeff Robison, Casey Twenter
Producers: Michael Davis, Maggie Grace, Jeff Johnson, Blake Robbins, Jeff Robison, Casey Twenter, Kevin Waller, Dan Koetting
Executive producers: Jonathan S. Melendez, Nancy Pickard, Jason Price
Director of photography: Lyn Moncrief
Production designer: Adriana Serrano
Editor: Lauren Clark Carroll
Composers: Will Blair, Brooke Blair
Costume designer: Raven Zimmer
Casting: Deborah Maxwell Dion