Shimmer Lake is a recently released Netflix Original Film, that may spark some interest. The film centers around a local small-town sheriff, Zeke Sikes (Benjamin Walker) trying to catch a group of bank robbers. However, the story unfolds in a rather peculiar way as the events on screen are portrayed in reverse, winding back the days that just might reveal that there is something larger at play here. The film marks the directorial debut of Oren Uziel an inexperienced Hollywood writer who was one of the writers on 22 Jump Street. While right of the bat the premise is admittedly interesting, is all that shimmers is gold? I think there is much to be said about Shimmer Lake so without further ado, here we have the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The Good: Chronology
It is well understood that a good story has a beginning, middle, and end. Whether you took a screenwriter’s class or basic English I’m sure you’ve seen something like this:
This is how stories are made you set up the characters, offset the balance through some sort of event or opposition and after reaching a high point the characters reach a new stasis either returning the world to normal or a better state then it was prior to the events of the story. Now hold on tight because this roller-coaster is flying in reverse. To follow the diagram above is to create a linear story but others have challenged the structure with various degrees of manipulation. To grasp a better understanding of more complex storytelling it’s important to understand the Russian Formalist theories of fabula and sjuzhet.
Fabula: refers to chronological sequence of events in a narrative
Sjuzhet: is the re-presentation of those events.
So, to further explain it I understand it as fabula is a timeline of events that occur, the lore of a series like Game of Thrones come first all flashback Titanic scenes in Titanic happen prior to all of old Rose scenes. While fabula is the timeline of events, sjuzhet is how things appear how the audience is made aware of them. Sjuzhet is how it’s order from page one to the final page turn or opening credits to end credits. Re-arranging events of the fabula into the way of the sjuzhet allows the audience to be blind to certain things and giving the storyteller the power of performing big reveals or create high tension. Christopher Nolan’s Memento is a great example of manipulating the audience into a limited and fixed perspective, and rewinding back the events to rather focus not on what happens but reveal how things spiraled to the out of control point the film starts at. Shimmer Lake attempts to replicate this effect with a backwards chronology to that leaves the audience with a creeping unrest that there is something more to be uncovered in this small town. Shimmer Lake begins on Friday and then progresses into the couple of days prior in order to unmask the true disarray that plagues this town. The film is an interesting premise by design and does attempt to be creative in a way that should inspire other film-makers or story-tellers to think about how they construct their own works. While neat, a non-linear story requires a reason to be told in this manner, it needs to have a certain amount of payoff.
Not only for a non-chronological story but for any mystery story there has to be a ends to all means that brings a worth to the entire story in which payoff is produced from the buildup. When watching Shimmer Lake, early on a viewer identifies through the format and the atmosphere that there is something missing. Admittedly, this film will make you wait for it. For a good majority, the film feels that the chronology is not necessary and nothing more than to make the film standout and seem less stock than its genre competitors. Often time when completing these reviews, I often visit other reviews online to validate my perspectives or see exactly where the consensus lies. I think this one IMDb review covers this point nicely.
“As I was watching from the start to about 90% to the end, I had already decided my 4/10 IMDb score with a lousy review cutting up this film to shreds. I couldn’t wait for it to finish so I could slam this with negativity… So now we’re at the last 10% ending of the film. All along I thought I had it figured out, constantly complaining how I would have enjoyed this more had this story been told going forward. Well, I was very pleasantly surprised… and wrong! The way this was played out (backward chapters) had to be done so, for the ending to have the shock factor it had. My prediction of ‘who-dun-it’ and ‘why’ was way off!” –Harrison Tweed from Canada
While I wouldn’t be this harsh on most of the film, and am not so heavily swayed by the film’s final act I do think that the emphasis on its impact rings true. The film needed a reason to be told in this fashion and a moment where the pieces of the puzzle are finally put together. As to what exactly has Harrison Tweed and myself praising the ending, well you’re going to have to go and see for yourself. If you have seen it, then I hope you as well agree in how the closure was a huge moment in this film.
Now to send some praise to a more technical aspect of the film. Often it goes unrecognized on how lighting alters how scenes are portrayed and perceived. One thing that impressed me with the lighting is the way it was used contrastingly to generate this paradox between the light and the dark not only for the visual aesthetic but also in terms of the tone. The film is often interpreted as a dark comedy in that it is sometimes comically aimed at serious and grave topics. Most daytime, bright scenes are lighter in tone and produce more playful moments such as scenes of the young girl or the FBI agents. However, even in the brighter scenes post-editing comes in and color corrects the images into feeling bleak and slightly de-saturated. These are heavily juxtaposed with the dark, night scenes that often convey the grim reality of this town and the material more involved in the mystery of the film. One character, Steph Burton (Stephanie Sigman) is portrayed very well primarily through the visuals of the lighting of her surroundings. The film purposefully places her in dimly lit rooms, heavy shadows, and having her always in center frame as seen above. The idea of her surrounded by darkness given off by a single frame is a clear message which makes sense in emphasizing her presence in the story. Steph Burton is a grieving mother who lost her son in some sort of accident caused by Ed Burton (Wyatt Russell) one of the bank robbers. With much more time allocated to other characters it’s impressive that through very few instances, with the only a couple of references and the visual make-up of scenes involving her does so much about her character translate. The lighting design takes full advantage of the visual medium and adds another layer to the film that some might overlook.
The Bad: Transparent Script
What do I mean by Transparent script? Films almost have this uncanny ability to engross you into their world, almost acting as a window into another universe. We’ve all been heavily invested in some sort of film, book, or other media that I think it’s difficult for at least me personally to get engulfed into this plot as it kept exposing itself as not being grounded in any sense of reality. I want to make it very clear how this is not me saying a film must be 100% realistic to be well written, if this was the case at least half of the genres out there: Sci-Fi, horror, fantasy etc. wouldn’t work. There are two types of ways to approach a script, the first being to present a sense of reality, make your character seem genuine and believable or have a stylized script that’s interesting. The Lobster is a recent interestingly stylized script in how all the dialogue is this strange socially ineptness speak that adds to the strangeness of the film. Quentin Tarantino also is well praised for over the top stylized dialogue. My issue with Shimmer Lake is that it neither falls here nor there. The film attempts to inject comedic moments but they come across as contrived an unnatural that it breaks some of the investment into the plot and reminds the audience that they’re watching a movie. The entire movie while it doesn’t have to have realism, might have benefited from trying a more natural approach and flow. The movie feels as if its stitched together moments to have an instant of comedy or an instant of drama that it feels to be this continuing mediocre script that I swear I almost see it. The transparency of the script I felt hindered the film in keeping its audience invested.
Lack of Direction
I mentioned in the beginning of the review that this was the debut for director Oren Uziel. This was an admirably ambitious first effort, but admittedly not without its flaws. Off-kilter chronological story are often handled by some of the best in the game such as Christopher Nolan (Memento) and Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction). I think these are both better example in how they handled non-linear storytelling having more evidence, and pieces in earlier scenes that it doesn’t come across as a gimmick, experiment, or a means to a shocking ending. Both films more suspense, action, and tension that produces a thematically complex film. In Shimmer Lake’s case I think Uziel isn’t experienced enough or given enough resources to not do this in its most simplistic form. It also seems that interpretations of this film has become sort of debate onto what exactly is the intended genre of the film. Some would classify it as a dark comedy while other take it at face value as a mystery thriller. While making this review I see that there might have intended to be a balance of the two but it doesn’t exactly hit the mark in doing so. It inconsistently clashes between the two that I feel the film lacks any sort of identity. The film seems scattered and going in different directions that it’s hard to identify what exactly the audience is supposed to take away after watching it. The film lacks a multifaceted-ness and almost even a reason to re-watch, while a lot is concealed at the end plot points are basic to the point that there really is nothing to go back to. Even the negative mentioned above with the script lacking a strong direction falls upon Uziel as well. I do commend just how bold of an effort this was to try to pull off this story, and I do hope Oren Uziel will get another chance to prove himself as a director but I do thing this attempt is flawed in ways that rests on the responsibilities of the director.
The Ugly: The Bizarre Scene
Oh, boy now it’s finally time to get into the juicy part. If you’ve seen the film then you know exactly what I’m referring to, if not this scene is around the 30-minute mark and shouldn’t spoil anything major but if you want to witness the sheer madness of this scene for yourself I would recommend you do so as I will try my best but words can barely describe this scene. The scene starts with this rich guy who gets into bed in which he remarks how beautiful his company is. Sounds normal enough, as he approaches the bed it’s revealed that he has a naked green-haired younger gentleman in his bed. I mean its 2017 there’s nothing wrong here but this scene is certainly a curve ball I don’t think anyone would have predicted this happening after the previous scene. The main robber guy breaks into his house and you can tell things are about to go down. The Green-haired gentlemen has a concerningly loud stomach noise in which he remarks that he has to take a shit…. Because of the drugs? Tension reaches its high point when the robber bursts into the room and demands the money and while this is happening the green-haired gentleman has to keep his bowels in check or risk being detected. This of all scenes was the one when I finally realized that the main robber is Dwight from The Office which just adds to how lucrative this sequence is. The Green-haired gentlemen finally gives out and releases a charge of explosive diarrhea. Dwight opens the door and the green haired guy gives out a shriek. A gun shot goes off and the rich guy stumbles across the door in which it seems that maybe he has escaped unharmed when its revealed he was the one who’s been shot. The rich guy like all people who’s been shot starts asking about the whereabouts of his slippers and the green-haired gent has the audacity to flush the toilet with perfect comedic timing.
Dwight threatens to kill green-haired guy but displays mercy by letting him go. This scene is just an insane fever dream that I don’t know what to say about it. There is so much going on in this brief amount of time that’s its hilarious. If this movie truly is dark comedy than this is the scene that made me laugh the most. As the thriller, this completely undermines everything in a distracting and ridiculous sequence of events. The entire things is misplaced and a jarring combination of Dwight from The Office, a homosexual green-haired man, and diarrhea that it sort of just speaks for itself. Completely baffling, I don’t know what anyone working on this was thinking but if the goal was to create a bizarre memorable scene then I would say they succeeded.
Shimmer Lake is without a doubt an interesting piece of medium. I think a Netflix Original movie should be judged by the same stature of a TV movie and in doing that I think it becomes something you got to see. It’s a bold movie in trying to be something and despite its shakier moments there is something to get out of it. Shimmer Lake is experimental in a way that’s not so groundbreaking but still unique. If you like a good mystery, this film isn’t going to take itself too seriously but I think it tells a pretty good story. I hope that after reading this either I sparked some interest in you to go check out the film or have brought up a new perspective if you have already seen it. Shimmer Lake is a fascinating film that you should go check out and see.
Images are from Shimmer Lake [credit: Footprint Features/Writ Large]
The Real MVP: Harrison Tweed from Canada IMDb account