IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON (NETFLIX) (2019)
SYNOPSIS: In 1988, Philadelphia police officer Thomas Lockhart (Boyd Holbrook), hungry to become a detective, begins tracking a serial killer who mysteriously resurfaces every nine years. But when the killer's crimes begin to defy all scientific explanation, Lock's obsession with finding the truth threatens to destroy his career, his family, and possibly his sanity. Directed by Jim Mickle and also starring Michael C. Hall and Cleopatra Coleman, IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON is a genre-blending psychological thriller that examines the power of time, and how its passing can either bring us together or tear us apart.
Consider this fair warning for those who don’t like time-travel movies – this latest Netflix thriller rests on that very science-fiction concept, and for better and for worse, avoids trying to explain too much of how exactly it works; instead, as its title suggests, the whole phenomenon of travelling back and forth in time is apparently enabled by some lunar event which takes place every nine years, which is also why the movie is set in 1988, then 1995, then 2006 and finally 2015.
Though we are only told in the last act just what the enigmatic female serial killer whom police officer Thomas Lockhart (Boyd Holbrook) is pursuing is after, the attentive viewer will probably already figure that out much earlier on. After all, it should come as no coincidence that the movie opens in 2024 with the horrific aftermath of what looks to be a terrorist attack, before rewinding to 1988 when Thomas was a young and ambitious Philadelphia beat cop who is called into action one night when a series of murders happen where its victims have all spontaneously bled out.
Then eager to make detective, Thomas urges his partner Maddox (Bokeem Woodbine) to pursue a shaven-headed African-American woman in a blue hoodie who is responsible for the tell-tale puncture wounds on the neck of those who had died. When he eventually confronts the suspect, Thomas is surprised that she knows more about him than would have been possible, including the fact that he was expecting a daughter. But before he can find out more, Rya (Cleopatra Coleman) leaps off a subway platform onto the path of an oncoming train, and is presumed dead when her dismembered body is found under its tracks.
Fast forward to 1995, and Thomas has now made detective while raising his precocious daughter Amy (Quincy Kirkwood) on his own. On that very day he had thought he had ended Rya’s string of murders, yet another series of killings take place, each one of which is committed in exactly the same manner. It should not come as any surprise that it is not in fact a copycat killer on the loose, but that Rya has somehow returned from the dead; it is also during this time that Thomas discovers Rya is able to travel through time, and that the physicist Rao (Rudi Dharmalingam) who had been spouting some wild theory about lunar positioning is not so crazy after all.
Rather than fill in the blanks, co-writers Gregory Weidman and Geoffrey Tock bring us forward another nine years to 2006, where Thomas is now even more obsessed with apprehending Rya, so much so that he has lost his job and is estranged from Amy (now played by Sarah Dugdale). Just so you know how long you’ll have to wait for the movie to reveal its setup, it is during this third go-around with Rya that it is clearer what Rya is up to, and also how Rya has been going back and forth through time. Without giving anything away, let’s just say that Rao has a bigger part to play in all of this than it may initially seem.
There is no big-bang climax so to speak in 2015, even as there is a kidnapping and high-speed chase during this last substantive chapter; in fact, director Jim Mickle chooses to play up the poignancy of these moments, delivering an unexpectedly heartfelt message about letting go of one’s obsessions in order to fully live in the present. Rya’s agenda is also played for social commentary, in how the seeds of discord and discrimination can germinate and fester into full-blown catastrophe many decades down the road. Especially in the context of recent homegrown terrorist acts in the United States, there is certainly topical relevance to its narrative.
Like we said, time travel has never been an easy and straightforward concept, and rather than try too hard to disentangle some of the logical conundrums, this film chooses to give just enough so you can appreciate its narrative construct. As a streaming title, we must say we were fairly entertained by the puzzle which Mickle has set out for his audience to unravel, and it doesn’t hurt that Holbrook and Michael C. Hall (from TV’s ‘Dexter’) are with us on this time-travelling adventure. If you’re in the mood for some genre-bending stuff, what with the mix of serial killer thriller and sci-fi, then you’ll find yourself reasonably entertained by this high-concept experiment..
Review by Gabriel Chong