South of Heaven plays out almost like a less pretentious Terrence Malick film, or a Coens crime thriller with a softer edge. Former bank robber Jimmy is released from prison, his honest remorse is increased by his desire to spend his fiancee’s final year with her before she dies from terminal lung cancer, but the criminal life comes calling.
From the offset this could be a run-of-the-mill crime drama about a former felon constantly saying he doesn’t want to be involved in these crimes for two hours while still indulging in them. It’s helped that Jimmy is played by Ted Lasso himself Jason Sudeikis who has to easy charm that cannot be faked. His southern drawl gives him an old-time gentleman feel and you do genuine buy into his desire to “make right” by his beloved Annie (Evangeline Lilly). Similarly Lilly brings that same resilience and vulnerability that made her one of the break out performers on Lost.
Mike Colter, still best known as bullet-proof anti-hero Luke Cage, is able to imbue his crime boss with more than just menace. Yes, he can fill a screen with his imposing frame but the writing gives him a but more nuance, a bit more depth, so the violence hits deeper. But, in the form of a corrupt parole officer Shea Whigham has the most fun. All stetson hat and personal space invading threats, he chews the scenery for all he’s worth until he’s chewing on some cake, and then decidedly not chewing anything. It’s the kind of low-fi drama that you can see gaining a steady build up of fans.
Director and co-writer Aharon Keshales clearly respects Malick’s Badlands, there’s a lot of beautiful sunsetting vistas and moments of shocking violence, but this is ultimately a love story. The black humour that comes through occasionally only serves to underline the horror at the story’s heart. A guy has his nose broken for a prank, death by cake, discussions on mortality all occur with an often bewildered Sudeikis never playing his hand fully.
We know he’s a criminal, but the casting of Sudeikis brings the baggage of that loveable football coach. Sudeikis and Lilly have an easy chemistry and that is what propels the narrative. You see why she is attracted to him, he’s a sweet natured guy who can handle himself. You see why he is attracted to her, she’s a loving, kind woman who is only firm and not afraid.
The film doesn’t say anything profound about the nature of violence, or the enduring nature of love, but arguably it doesn’t want to. It wants, instead, to give us a story of people in love and the darker nature of humanity that occasionally creeps in. If it’s worth watching it’s entirely because of Sudeikis and Lilly.
South Of Heaven is available now.