“A series of interesting ideas, presented in segments which sort of work on their own, but aren’t mixed into functioning, thriving product.”
by Ken Bakely
It’s questionable if Oren Uziel’s Shimmer Lake knows what kind of movie it wants to be. The overarching approach is a twisting, turning crime thriller that is told in reverse throughout one particularly chaotic week. Yet the cast, filled with comedy veterans, is apt to deliver the film’s many screwball gags with as much overtness as possible, creating an odd thematic clash between the backstabbing characters and the movie’s dour cinematography. It further muddles up the story itself, as the plot is rendered incoherent because we are never given the opportunity to get on the same level as the script. The experiment, ingenious as it may be, serves as a detriment to the very core principles at hand.
This is a shame, because there is definite promise in the tried but reliable tropes that Uziel lays forth. Set in a small, run-down town, Shimmer Lake follows a convoluted investigation coming after a botched bank robbery and the endless complications which follow. Sheriff Zeke Sikes (Benjamin Walker) is dealt the unenviable hand of having to investigate his brother Andy (Rainn Wilson), who was central to the heist which sets things off. Stuck with two incompetent feds (Rob Corddry and Ron Livingston), and overburdened with further developments, including the murder of a local judge (John Michael Higgins) and a widening net of suspects, the characters are introduced as the scenario is at its most chaotic. As we turn back the clock and start looking at the individual puzzle pieces, it becomes more clear how a set of individual deceptions and schemes led to this expanding trail of cash, conspiracies, and corpses.
Upon describing the plot in a linear fashion, a theory I held while watching Shimmer Lake becomes exponentially plausible. Fundamentally, this isn’t a bad movie, or a bad screenplay. There’s enough intrigue and good, overstuffed fun going on here. The problem is the gimmick that Uziel employs to set it apart from the rest. This is a fairly generic caper from the outset, only individualized by its narrative style. But mixing up the story makes it difficult for us to figure out who these people are, and what’s gotten them into their present situation. Having it explained in retrospect clears up our most immediate questions, but we then can’t apply it to those early scenes because they happened so long ago. By positioning all of these contradictory requirements and methods, this movie ends up checkmating itself. You can’t go forward, because then it feels overly familiar. But you can’t go backwards, because then there’s no payoff.
The disappointment here is further embellished by the caliber of the cast and the dedication they give to their performances. Shimmer Lake has a wide array of eccentric characters, and there’s certainly no shortage of famous names to fill out the roster. Wilson does good work in making Andy an awkward, disorganized would-be crook, with many of his crimes somewhere between only partially deliberate and almost entirely incidental. Yet many of his scenes are directly humorous in nature, which clashes against the more serious and complex elements that the script attempts to compose. This is seen in a sequence between Wilson and Higgin’s characters, in which childish bathroom humor intersperses one of the most pivotal dramatic moments in the entire 87 minute movie. All the main characters are written to be comedic and absurd to an extent, to the point where the film often feels like the cast of a sitcom was dropped into a gritty crime drama.
So Uziel could make a good caper film, and he could make a good ensemble comedy, but he can’t do both simultaneously. And his case isn’t helped by underdeveloping his own story by telling it out of order. It’s admirable that he would try to make something so multifaceted as Shimmer Lake, and that the cast assembled would be so game for its unorthodox structure, but that doesn’t guarantee that the project completed will be as grand. If anything, it raises the creative stakes higher. Here is a series of interesting ideas, presented in segments which sort of work on their own, but aren’t mixed into a functioning, thriving product. For all I know, this movie could have been shot in chronological order and reassembled in post. It doesn’t feel prepared.