The problem with “The Violent Heart” isn’t that it goes too far, it’s that it doesn’t go far enough. Written and directed by Kerem Sanga, and unfolding in the type of desolate rural American landscape where movie characters tend to either battle over ownership of farmland or participate in demonic rituals, this movie arrives preceded by claims that it’s a melodrama in the tradition of Douglas Sirk (“Magnificent Obsession”), embracing coincidence and tragic fate.
But what’s onscreen feels more like a hushed, emotionally constipated middle-American indie drama where pretty much everybody is weighed down by the horrors of the past even though they go about their days in clueless innocence or lie about everything being fine. Imagine an early Bruce Springsteen ballad worked over in a fiction writing workshop until the life has been bled out of it. Hell breaks loose in the final stretch of the film, and sure enough, that’s when things finally start to cook. But by then it’s too late for “The Violent Heart” to do anything but make you mourn all the promising artistic and narrative pathways it refused to explore.
Jovan Adepo (“Fences,” “Overlord”) plays Daniel, a 24-year old who’s trying to get into the Marines in order to escape his small town and put his tragic family past behind him. When he was nine, he saw his older sister being murdered in the woods by a man whose face he never saw and who has gone unpunished for fifteen long years. Daniel understandably dealt with anger management issues his whole life, and did time as a juvenile for accidentally killing a classmate during what should have been an unremarkable middle school altercation.
Against all odds, a redemptive romance blooms between Daniel and Cassie (Grace Van Patten), an eighteen year old high school senior. Cassie is a bright, beautiful, witty young woman whose closest friend is her father, Joseph (Lukas Haas), who also happens to be her English teacher. Cassie is naturally starting to drift apart from Joseph and her mother Rose (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) in preparation for leaving the nest, and the tension is amplified when she returns to school from her first long afternoon with Daniel (who fixed her vehicle at the local garage where he works as a mechanic) and catches her father in what might be a compromising moment with a teacher (they both seem flustered as the teacher lets herself out of Daniel’s room).
It’s impossible to say an unkind word about the cast, a dazzling ensemble that includes Mary J. Blige, who shines as Daniel’s mother (in her first movie role since “Mudbound“); and Cress Williams as Lee, Daniel’s father, an Afghanistan veteran who inspires him to the enter the armed forces; and Jahi Di’Allo Winston as Daniel’s kid brother Aaron, who frets that mom favors big brother over him. Every performer of any significance is in there working overtime to fill these characters with emotional nuances.
The problem is that they seemingly have to infer or tease out elements that are mostly glanced-over or avoided in the screenplay—particularly the racial dynamics of the relationship between Daniel and Cassie, and between Daniel’s family and the town, which from all appearances is overwhelmingly white. There’s exactly one reference to the fact that Daniel is a dark-skinned man in his mid-twenties dating a a light-skinned blond teenager in a small middle-American town of the type that Black road-trippers might’ve driven around during the Green Book days.
Even though we can feel the racial tension as subtext in a few scenes (particularly when mom and dad raise objections, and mom starts to say something like, “Also, he’s…” but doesn’t finish the thought) it seems unrealistic that nobody in this story would otherwise bring it up as text. The central love story is a Romeo-and-Juliet type affair involving the what appears to be the only black family in town, one that was the victim of a violent, unsolved killing fifteen years earlier. The writer-director makes a point of contrasting the daunting odds facing the black hero as he tries to gain admission to the Marines despite his juvenile criminal conviction, and the white heroine repeatedly failing to really listen to Daniel’s pain even as she offers herself as a confidant and emotional cheerleader.
Poor Cassie just doesn’t get it. But contrary to the portrait painted in this movie’s weirdly evasive screenplay, it’s not just because she’s a teenager and he’s an adult man. And it’s certainly not just because she’s female and he’s male. The films of Douglas Sirk has been repeatedly invoked in advance press for this movie—reviews and film festival coverage alike—with “Magnificent Obsession” being name-checked often. But the classic that “The Violent Heart” seems to want to channel, deep down, only to have its nerve repeatedly fail it, is “Imitation of Life,” a rare 20th Century Hollywood film that dealt directly with racism and sublimation in a prototypical (i.e. white) suburban setting, and that was so popular it was remade twice (the second time by Sirk) and eventually became one of the main inspirations for Todd Haynes’ 2005 Douglas Sirk tribute “Far from Heaven.” The movie keeps getting close to full self-awareness and raw honesty about its characters’ predicaments (never more so than when Daniel marvels bitterly at Cassie’s ability to see the silver lining in every cloud) only to shrug it off and continue moping in lush yet muted widescreen.
Why not just let the story be what it’s already plainly inclined to be? Why not release the social anxieties that are already swirling through every scene? And why not not double down on the melodrama inherent in the story, which has an unsolved murder mystery at its heart—the solution to which is not all that hard to figure out, honestly, and that the movie doesn’t even knock itself out trying to camouflage? The movie enters its home stretch just when it’s finally (and delectably) building up a proper Sirkian head of steam, en route to what you’re sure will be a horrendous explosion of sad mayhem.
A promising but self-thwarting movie like this is more depressing than an outright bad or dumb film.”The Violent Heart” (a title worthy of a mid-1950s Technicolor melodrama!) had everything it needed to be powerful, even cathartic: an opera with tearful monologues in place of songs. But it settles for coming across as the Official Version of the story—the one that the main characters’ descendants would tell two generations later, in the same small town, conscious of not wanting to embarrass anyone within earshot by getting into the deep, dark truth of what actually went down.