Shimmer Lake movie review: This dark comedy champions a Memento-style narrative
(Editor's note: We are doing a series of movie reviews based on films newly available on Netflix, Amazon Prime and other online streaming websites. You can read Mihir's previous review here.)
No intention of producing a pun here – but do you remember Memento? You know, the little film that launched Chris Nolan into the cinema stratosphere and is still remembered for its unique time jumping plotting.
Shimmer Lake, the new addition to Netflix India’s increasingly impressive original programming catalogue, also follows a Memento style narrative that tells the story backwards. Except there is no flashback, jumping forward or back here, the whole film is literally a reverse chronology of events, told in a clinically simple, linear fashion.
It’s also a dark comedy in the guise of a murder mystery – or maybe it’s the other way round depending on how you perceive the film and its cast of established comedians.
In a small American town, an unknown man (Rainn Wilson) is seen (hilariously) hiding in the bathroom of his own house for an unknown reason. A cop (Ben Walker) who happens to his own brother is questioning his wife upstairs about his whereabouts. The man somehow escapes and is seen holding a case, presumably full of money and is waiting for a getaway car.
An unknown car then arrives, and an unknown person inside pulls out a gun. The only identification mark of the shooter is a tattooed arm.
It’s quite impressive how writer director Oren Uziel manages to keep the mystery intact despite giving away the final shot in the first scene in the film. Much like in Memento, even though you’re aware that the character in the first scene gets shot at the tension never wavers the next time you see the character alive, plunging into a series of events that would lead to his shooting.
The first time the film jumps back in time one tends to wonder why this reverse narrative was needed for the story because the ‘mystery’ isn’t fully apparent by this point. As the film progresses, however, the layers are peeled away and suddenly there’s more at stake than one originally thought.
Uziel has wicked command of his material. The transitions from one segment to another are done in darkly funny moments where different characters seem to wake up from a bad dream. We then follow their journey and understand, in small doses, what the heck happened to them and how they contributed to a seemingly giant criminal mess in a small town. The film almost feels like an out of the box experiment that somehow works even though the rules of filmmaking seem to not allow it to.
There’s a clever way to make the mystery seem denser than it actually is by withholding information from the viewer in the first act. There’s also a lot of confusing data hurled at the viewer in the second segment, with no less than four different character names mentioned without showing their faces.
This way, after a sedate start, the film suddenly demands your full concentration to keep track of things and try and uncover the story’s secret. Anyone fine tuned to the works of Agatha Christie might be able to figure out whodunit, but even if you do the journey towards that reveal is still fun.
Despite the scale being miniscule and the budget being super low the film feels like a grand affair thanks to the cast of comedians. Wilson channels his hilarious haplessness from his ‘The Office’ days, while Walker is an enigmatic as the serious cop. Rob Cordry and Ron Livingston make hilarious cameos as bumbling FBI personnel trying to show off to the lowly small town cops.
Adam Pally is side splitting as a deputy sheriff at the wrong end of a running gag where he’s forced to sit in the prisoner’s seat in the police car. There’s even the archetypical seductress (Stephanie Sigman from Miss Bala and Narcos) who may or may not be up to no good, and John Michael Higgins as a lawyer being amusingly blackmailed.
One of the best character moments, however comes from the young Isabel Dove who gets to demonstrate that children can be fun in not just cutesy ways.
Shimmer Lake is streaming on Netflix and highly recommended for all audiences.