John Swab‘s fourth feature film as writer-director-producer, “Ida Red,” (and if it’s your first of his, don’t feel too bad; it well may also be your last) starts with a police stop that turns out to be a heist. On a deserted stretch of highway late at night, a nicely spoken cop, played by Josh Hartnett, asks politely to see a trucker’s manifest. And when the tired, irascible trucker seeks permission to retrieve it from his door compartment, you feel a frisson of worry. Partly it’s because Hartnett’s cop seems so alone and vulnerable up there in the night, especially in Matt Clegg‘s trembling handheld photography. Partly it’s that the trucker and his driving partner seem ornery and who knows what he’s reaching for in that hidden space? But mostly, it’s because David Sardy‘s deliriously over-explanatory score, which will be your constant companion for the next 111 minutes, is already at DefCon 1 from about a minute in and could not be more explicit about Something Bad going to happen.
Anyway, the unnecessary bloodshed is about to get bloodsheddier, as Wyatt, who, say what you will about him, is a very devoted son, goes to visit his incarcerated local-legend mother Ida (Melissa Leo in a frizzy prison perm), and she instructs him to “clean it up.” This uncrackable code translates to “get your uncle Dallas to kill everyone,” which Dallas proceeds to do messily and, oddly, clad in vaguely male stripper/leather-daddy outfits apparently designed to maximize the cinematic potential of Grillo’s sinewy, bulging-bag-of-rope arms.
That the Bad Thing actually turns out to be Hartnett’s cop not being a cop at all is a small surprise. Cherish that feeling: it will be the last time the film does anything unexpected until a minor character commits a sordid suicide to the utterly batshit soundtrack choice of Madonna’s “Crazy for You.” (Hey, Scorsese uses pop songs as counterpoint over scenes of violence, so why not Swab?) It turns out Hartnett’s “cop” is local thug Wyatt, scion of the deeply criminal Walker clan, and in the fake cop car behind is his psycho uncle/partner Dallas (Frank Grillo) along with locally sourced muscle Bird (Danny Boy O’Connor) and the slow-witted Jay (Beau Knapp). The heist ends with one of the truckers on life support and the other dead, dispatched, like everyone who dies by gunshot in “Ida Red,” by perfect, squashed-grape headshot, as though Swab got a job lot of them for cheap, or maybe the SFX guy was out sick for the part of the course that dealt with wounds from the neck down.
All would probably be fine, and these lunkish men could continue to growl hardboiled cynicisms at each other until the cows come home, except the blood trail brings the Feds to town in the shape of perma-gum-chewing Agent Twilley (William Forsythe), who is working with local police officer Bodie (George Carroll aka mono-monikered rapper Slaine). In a twist of fate worthy of one of the crappier Greek tragedies, Bodie is married to Wyatt’s sister Jeanie (Deborah Ann Woll) and is, therefore, father to Darla (Sofia Hublitz), the surly, lissome 15-year-old niece on whom Wyatt dotes. Family barbecues are predictably strained – and that’s before Wyatt discovers that his beloved Ma, from whom Jeanie is estranged, is dying and resolves to get her out of prison by fair means or, far more likely, foul.
Apologies for the blizzard of names and familial relations just there, but that’s scarcely the half of it – it’s a factor of Swab’s screenplay which seems to mistake quantity of characters for quality of characterization that rather than actually enrich any of the backstories, or give Hartnett anything to do other than be a ruthless killer with a sickly sentimental attitude toward his family (one can imagine him and Vin Diesel’s “Fast and the Furious” squaring off in some bar somewhere only to end up sobbing tears into each other’s light beers over pictures of their dear old Mums) Swab’s solution to keep things moving is to introduce another outlandish and flamboyant minor character who gets but a scene or two. There’s the Black pastor/crimelord who sets the Walker boys up with their Last Big Score; there’s Ida’s doggedly loyal, good-ol-boy lawyer; there’s a random friend of Dallas’ whom he visits one night to get one piece of information that he could surely have picked up elsewhere; there’s the parole board official whom Dallas and Wyatt lean on to secure Ida’s release, and there’s the cute guy Darla gets drunk with and crushes on who turns out to be – in not exactly a huge surprise given all the other male role models in her life – a dick. It’s rare to find yourself thinking, during a B-movie crime flick like this one, that there are just too many people in it, but there are just too many people in “Ida Red,” each given too little to do. Swab could at least have got them to show up as background extras for the film’s Tulsa-set shootout setpiece, which happens on city streets so distractedly deserted you start to wonder what apocalyptic event occurred here and to wish you were watching a movie about that instead.
Swab has undoubtedly watched the touchpoints in the gangster and crime genres. He may even have jotted down some notes about the modern rural crime-western from David Mackenzie‘s “Hell or High Water” and about brothers-against-brothers from the early movies of James Gray. He has certainly absorbed a thing or two about matriarchal crime-clan sagas from David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom” and also seemingly admires the jaunty wipes and scene transitions in Soderbergh’s glossy caper films. But “Ida Red” shuffles disparate bits from that scrapbook into a vaguely movie-shaped object and then slathers it in overbearing score to create atmosphere and momentum that even Sardy’s heavy-lifting, descending-blare compositions and a whole bunch of rather enjoyable actors earnestly doing their best cannot provide. The problem may simply be that the best gangster pictures have some guiding sense of intelligence, their Godfather-style kingpins being fascinating as much for their long-view, big-picture thinking as for their venality. Here, no one seems capable of envisaging even the most immediate consequences of their increasingly vicious actions, and so where “Ida Red” wants us to thrill to the idea of criminality as almost a genetic inheritance, a trait carried down a bloodline like blue eyes or freckles, in fact, all it really suggests is that this family might be really dumb, and actually quite bad at crime. [C-]