Stories about serial killers tend to involve obsession, not only in their examination of startlingly meticulous murderers, but of the people who investigate their crimes. One needs to look no further than the films “Zodiac” and “Se7en,” and even the Netflix show “Mindhunter,” to experience the gradual psychological erosion that comes from obsession with the macabre. Of course, all three of these are products of David Fincher, who is arguably the master of this archetype. He makes his characters and his viewers wonder why they are so drawn into the grisliest human behavior and, in doing so, paints this obsession as a dark and poisonous curiosity.
A movie that misunderstands the trope of the in-too-deep murder investigator is “In the Shadow of the Moon,” directed by Jim Mickle (“Cold in July”). When Philadelphia policeman Thomas “Locke” Lockhart (Boyd Holbrook, who coincidentally played an investigator in Fincher’s “Gone Girl,”) notices a temporal pattern of unsolved murders, his obsession wears away at his own mental stability and the relationships around him. “Moon” struggles to establish enough sympathy between the audience and Locke. An important aspect of understanding an investigator’s descent into darkness is eagerly following along with them. Instead of a continuous timeline, the film stitches together moments from every nine years of his life to depict the various stages of his investigation. As a result, the transition is blunt and dry, replacing character nuance with increasingly mangier facial hair and crazier theories.
A reason that Locke doesn’t connect with the audience is that the film makes foolhardy, tactless dives into political commentary. Locke’s work central to this misstep — early in the film, he marks himself as part of a corrupt police system, one that operates on racial profiling and a general dismissal of due process. As an audience, grappling with Locke’s morality for the rest of the film is certainly tough, and when the film coerces us to root for him by placing tragedy after tragedy along his journey, it’s hard not to be incensed at the writing.
The movie’s admission of, and eventual complicity with, the systematic violence of police isn’t its only serious misstep. In future vignettes, it perplexingly criticizes protests against that violence. “Why are they so angry?” Locke’s daughter asks him as she gazes out a window at a march outside. “Some people aren’t happy unless they’re mad. You’ll see what I mean when you get older,” he replies smugly. One might think that Locke is a villain to the story’s anxieties, but “Moon” is simply not that aware. It aches to humanize him without understanding the costs of doing so.
“Moon” is truly infuriating because Mickle incorporates eye-catching cinematography and meaningful camerawork into a story that never deserves it. For all its visual flair, the movie is a sour pill to swallow. The performances are also lacking, making me wonder if a halfway decent cast could have at least made the journey worthwhile.
Perhaps the more fascinating story of obsession in “Moon” is that of the filmmakers and their curmudgeonly desperation to say something, anything about current politics. This trap is one that many films of the last few years have fallen into, some notably more successful than others. These distractions took away from a legitimately interesting science fiction subplot that gave the story a twist that most detective stories don’t have. In many ways, “Moon” is just another Netflix movie — a compelling idea executed poorly, and a story that can surely be avoided.