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NBFF 2017 Review: The Scent Of Rain And Lightning

There is a lot to get out of films surrounding family secrets. Ideally, you are gradually drawn into learning about who a family is, establishing various personas, only to have things turn around on you thanks to sudden reveals. It’s not a cheat to make these sort of twists, as you’ve been effectively coerced into feeling like a part of the family. The Scent of Rain and Lightning is a modern western with a mystery at its core. We are well aware that something bad happened early on, but the film wants us to continue questioning the validity of this fact throughout. Unfortunately, the results are not as effective as they could be, due to a disjointed narrative.

Set in the midwest (production took place in Oklahoma), we are introduced to Jodie Linder (Maika Monroe), the daughter of two murdered parents. As the film begins, we quickly learn that the convicted murderer of said parents, Billy (Brad Carter), has been released from prison, having served 12 years. This becomes a worrisome development in the eyes of the Linder family leader and Jodie’s grandfather, Senior (Will Patton), along with other family members, including Jodie’s uncle Chase (Mark Webber) and her grandmother Annabelle (Bonnie Bedelia). Jodie, on the other hand, is more concerned with confronting Billy and learning what really happened to cause her parents’ deaths.

There’s a bit of a noir aesthetic running throughout Rain and Lightning that was admirable, calling to mind the Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone. Like that film, Rain and Lightning places a young female character at the center of the story and proceeds to have her essentially conduct an investigation into her own family history. As we watch her delve into the past, the film also moves back in time to show us a series of events that build up to the murders. Here we get a sense of who Jodie’s parents (Justin Chatwin and Maggie Grace) were, as well as who everyone used to be. That angle is particularly interesting, as you see the actors play multiple versions of their characters, best highlighting the skills needed to take on this story.

Sadly, it is the editing together of these timelines that undoes the film’s effectiveness. While well-shot by Lyn Moncrief, who does his best to create a mysterious sense of atmosphere by blending the timelines together in various ways, the nature of jumping back and forth ends up having an inverse effect on how to invest in what’s going on. It ends up making the stuff in the past serve as the most effective portions of the film, while the present timeline does not have enough impact.

Sure, there are elements, such as Carter’s role as Billy, who clearly goes through an intense change, based on his time in prison, but I couldn’t help but feel less and less involved with Jodie’s story the more the film went on. At least the past timeline provides enough conflict to work as a familiar, but an interesting struggle for Chatwin’s character, who is dealing with a hard-nosed father and trying to properly maintain his marriage. The present timeline starts out confident enough, but it eventually boils itself down to a climax that feels a bit too obvious for its own measure.

Perhaps the story structure would have felt less problematic if Rain and Lightning at least ended on a good note, but alas, the final moments fail to deliver. While there is something admirable about the way it chooses to wrap up the characters (the mystery still needs to be solved long after an inevitable showdown), there was something about certain reveals that missed out on feeling like more of a revelation. Answers are given and there’s even a hint of ambiguity that’s sort of neat, but it was not fully satisfying.

There are aspects to praise. While the convoluted story, based on Nancy Pickard’s novel, has issues overall, the performers are mostly up to the challenge of taking it on. Patton, in particular, lends the film plenty of gravitas. Young Logan Miller also has a key role as a member of Billy’s family. I point out Miller, as he’s been on my radar as of late, appearing in several movies and TV shows and making an impact. Monroe is fine as well, given her status as the lead character, but it’s more the film’s structure that I felt did her a disservice. Lastly, given the stature as a smaller film fit for festivals, I did admire the overall look of the movie. It captures its setting well, placing an effective level of darkness around these characters, even as the sun beams down on this family of ranchers.

The Scent of Rain and Lightning starts off promising enough but didn’t quite pull through. That’s a shame, as there is a strong ensemble of performers here and enough in the way of atmosphere that made me wish this mystery would have been more intriguing to solve. Given the family secrets that may or may not unfold, I would have hoped traveling back and forth through time could have been a solid display of effective storytelling. It didn’t quite play out that way, but I didn’t feel like I was fully bucked off the bull either.

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and be sure to check back to Why So Blu throughout the week
for more of my coverage of the festival!

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Video Game Player, Comic Book Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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