Is there anything that helps push the best of ourselves to the forefront more than guilt weighing down on a tender conscious? The very realities of guilt and consciousness are extraordinarily potent in manipulating our behaviour to repair, mend, and reconcile with those we believe we have wronged. Serving as the backbone of our moral fibre, they are what keep us honest. Sometimes, however, our guilt sways us to commit to acts that change our destinies forever, and not necessarily for the better. This is the plight of the sinner that cannot bear to live with their crime, the one that accepts condemnation, however painful. It also permeates writer-director Matthew Pope and fellow scribe Don M. Thompson’s neo-noir, Blood on Her Name.
Set in the southern United States, the filmmakers waste no time in thrusting the audience in the thick of the drama, with automobile repair shop owner Leigh Tiller (Bethany Anne Lind) appalled and shocked by a huge mistake she evidently just make before the theatre screen was turned on. Lying in a bloody pool before her is a man with a wrench beside him. Once the utter surprise of the event subsides, Leigh tries to dispose of the corpse, but just as she is about to toss her accidental victim into a nearby lake, she renounces the act. Rather, the unwilling killer keeps the cadaver in a car trunk none too far from her shop. Upon learning that the departed had a wife named Dani (Elisabeth Rohm) and teenage son, that old guilt starts creeping up, like a dark malicious cloud. When Leigh decides one night to deliver the body to Dani’s shed, she sets herself off on a high tension course that drags in more people than she’d care for: namely her son, Ryan (Jared Ivers), co-worker Rey (Jimmy Gonzales), and a father (Will Patton) she cannot stand the sight of who happens to be the town sheriff.
The film made a big splash at Fantasia where I first watched it. Few will debate the point that the Fantasia Film Festival has earned its globally recognized reputation in genre film by sporting annual lineup replete with stellar horror, science-fiction, and action movies, many of which hail from Asia. Even so, the event has taken on different shades in the last decade or so, embracing a vastly more diverse selection of movies than its original namesake purports. American independent cinema has for some years now been welcomed with open arms, and of course the grimier, grittier, and more dramatic the better. With that in mind, neo-noir fits right in with the Fantasia crowd: a crowd quieter than the cat and dog imitators, but a terrifically astute and discerning crowd just the same.
Blood on Her Name is a gift from the formidable duo of Matthew Pope and Don M. Thompson, who expertly bathe their film in a realistic southern state atmosphere so authentic that one can practically feel the heat waves from off the screen. There is little question that they understand the ebbs of flows of noir, that most difficult to define film movements (not a genre, as many a cinephile would quickly retort). Many of its beautifully twisted tropes resonate loudly throughout the film, with the filmmakers adding some modern flavours to the fold, in addition to the aforementioned southern personality, which, to be perfectly honest, brilliantly adds another layer of toughness to the story. There is something to be said about how certain people of the region have a habit of handling their issues with a particular forcefulness or bluntness that makes them unique in the United States. That rugged attitude serves film noir especially well, with Blood on Her Name serving as a prime example of the wonderfully and dangerously charming aura southern USA carries itself with.
Above all else, however, Pope’s picture is fuelled by Leigh’s guilty conscious, a delicious proposition for any neo-noir to relish. It is made clear that the protagonist’s past was not exempt from some rather unfortunate decision-making blunders, forcing her into an unenviable economic predicament, and ultimately exploding with the death that opens the films. Many parties deserve credit for rendering Leigh as multifaceted as she is, chief among them lead actress Bethany Anne Lind, who gives what might be one of the year’s best performances. In a stupendous balancing act, Lind invites the audience into her world and psyche. Have mistakes been made? Absolutely. Were some of those mistakes particularly stupid? Most definitely. Said past still does not define her as a bad person, certainly not considering the energy she invests in her son’s upbringing (a muted Jared Ivers), the latter having already engaged in some ne’er do well behaviour. The struggles Leigh reckons with are palpable, deep, and fraught with anxiety. Even if the rest of the picture was patently mediocre, Bethany Anne Lind alone would be reason enough to give it a chance.
She is far from the only actor shining with committed, layered performances. Will Patton, having just played a cop in 2018’s Halloween, returns with a badge, only this one is sullied with stains that cannot be washed away (hence the father-daughter tension). Patton is an extraordinary actor, and giving him the role of a morally corrupt sheriff who also deeply wishes to help his troubled daughter is a terrific coup. Jimmy Gonzales as Rey is equally impressive, albeit in a far quieter role as the only chap with a justly calibrated moral compass amongst the lot.
Time will reveal what sort of mark Blood on Her Name will leave, but hopefully, it’s the sort that enables as many movies lovers to discover it as possible. Plenty of solid movies come and go, but if the movies gods see to it that any justice is served, Matthew Pope’s lovingly made drama will be enjoyed by as many genre movie fans as possible. You wouldn’t want to feel guilty of missing it, would you?
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 24th as part of our coverage of the Fantasia Film Festival.