Hush, little baby, don't you cry, Judge Clark Douglas is gonna call your parents with the ransom demands.
He took her son…now she'll take him.
As I write this review, actress Melissa Leo is receiving a lot of honors for her performance in the drama Frozen River. In that film, Leo played a financially troubled single mom who is forced to to turn crime in order to save her family. She immediately followed that film by starring in Lullaby, in which she plays a financially troubled single mom who is forced to turn to crime in order to save her family. Of course the circumstances are different this time around, but the basic premise is so similar that comparisons are unavoidable.
Sadly, Lullaby pales dramatically in contrast to Frozen River, blending moments of insightful perception with absolutely ludicrous execution. The plot description provided on the back of the DVD package is rather misleading. It tells us that Leo plays a mother whose drug-addled son (Joey Dedio) has been kidnapped. This is true. It tells us that Leo attempts to get her son back by traveling to Johannesburg. This is also true. The case then tells us that the kidnapper (Reneir Bassoon) changes his game, and the Leo will stop at nothing to get revenge. This is true, but this happens five minutes before the film is over, which essentially spoils the film's "twist ending." I looked at the case before watching the film, so I was sitting there the entire time waiting for the villain to "change his game" (and we all know what that actually means).
Putting aside my complaints about the advertising, the film simply isn't very good. Not a single character in the film manages to exhibit any intelligence whatsoever, and only Leo is capable of making this aspect interesting. She convinces us that her motherly love for her son is getting in the way of her common sense, and we feel for her. Everyone else comes across as a one-dimensional idiot, whether they are good or evil. Bassoon in particular plays an obnoxious and uninteresting villain. His dialogue mostly consists of phrases like, "Give me the money, bitch!"
Leo manages to secure the ransom money fairly quickly. She's told that she needs to get even more money. "3,000 dollars? I need 5,000 dollars! You have two hours, bitch!" Leo quickly teams with a pregnant prostitute (Lisa Marie Schneider) who just so happens to be her son's ex-girlfriend. They work together to gather up some more money. In a moment of somewhat astounding stupidity, the two women accidentally give the kidnapper 5,000 rand instead of 5,000 dollars. Who can miss something like that? In addition, the two women have several perfectly good opportunities to scrounge up some cash legally (or at least semi-legally) in a very quick manner, but instead the prostitute decides to pull out a gun and turn the situation into an armed robbery. D'oh!
The film was directed by Darrell Roodt, a generally talented fellow who has made some rather fine films over the course of his career (his drama Yesterday is a hidden gem). He seems out of his league here. When he is raising awareness about some of the social problems in South Africa, he excels. The film is quite effective in terms of establishing the nightmarish vibe of the location, and menace really does seem to be lurking around every corner. However, when the film switches to thriller mode, it's absolutely incompetent. I realize that kidnappings and murders take place all the time, but it's just presented in such a hokey and unconvincing manner here. The worst scene is the aforementioned "revenge movie" finale, which is just dumb beyond belief. Do you want to know? I've got to tell someone.
Leo breaks into the evil thug's house and points a gun at him. "Sit down," she smirks. They have a nervous confrontation, and it seems obvious that she is going to shoot him. Suddenly, the thug leaps forward, grabs the gun from Leo and points it at her. He sneers and does an evil-guy monologue. Then he pulls the trigger. Nothing. He pulls it again. Nothing. Leo grins. "It's empty," she says. "I didn't come here to shoot you. I came here to give you something." She gives him a bag of cocaine. His eyes light up. Cool, free cocaine! He snorts the cocaine, and suddenly starts to feel sick. Leo smirks again, and says something about strychnine being mixed in with the cocaine. "Let me tell you what's going to happen next," she says. Then she walks out of the room as the thug begins to die. Rather than telling the dying thug what happens next, Leo provides a voiceover telling the audience exactly how strychnine kills people. The end. And so concludes one of the most ill-conceived and poorly-handled scenes I've ever seen.
The transfer is just fine, but this is balanced by the fact that the film is so drab visually. Lullaby is yet another film that relies heavily on the, "grainy, grimy, gritty and desaturated" look that is somehow supposed to bring extra "reality" to everything. Nonsense. It simply makes everything less watchable. Despite this, the unpleasant visuals are conveyed with depth and clarity. The audio is less impressive, particularly the dialogue. Some conversations are a bit too muted and muddy. I also greatly disliked the score by Alun Richards, which flat-out steals everything it can from John Powell's oft-imitated Bourne scores. The only extra on the DVD is a trailer for the film.
Despite some good intentions and another solid performance from Melissa Leo, Lullaby makes too many unforgivable mistakes. Pass on this one.
Note: The copy of the film I received has a blurb on the back of the box that says, "Rating Pending." The language, violence, and brief nudity in the film puts Lullaby firmly in R-rated territory.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Peace Arch Entertainment
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