Plenty happens in Ida Red. People are robbed and killed and kidnapped and arrested; fat stacks of money shuffle between shady people; a tangled family dynamic yields a life-altering secret. And yet what it all amounts to feels like not much at all. Competent enough to be dull and nowhere near bold enough to be interesting, the new crime thriller by John Swab (Body Brokers) evaporates from memory even faster than it can dole out plot twists.
The tedium and confusion set in with the very first scene, a truck robbery shot in dark, shaky close-ups that make it nigh impossible to tell who’s who, what’s happening or even exactly how many people are present. It takes a few more scenes for the context to fill in: One of the robbers involved is our protagonist, Wyatt Walker (Josh Hartnett, trying his best to inject some warmth into a tepid script). He regularly drops by the prison to report to his mother, Ida “Red” Walker (Melissa Leo), who’s still the head of their scrappy crime family after 15 years behind Plexiglas.
Basically competent but mostly charmless.
Now that she’s dying of some vaguely defined illness, Wyatt’s mission is to get her out of prison so she doesn’t spend her last days in there. But his bloody work — or, more accurately, the bloody and very sloppy work of his uncle Dallas (Frank Grillo) — attracts the attention of an FBI special agent (William Forsythe), who’s working with a local cop (George Carroll), who happens to be married to Wyatt’s sister (Deborah Ann Woll), who’s the mother of Wyatt’s beloved niece (Sofia Hublitz). Much of this is explained in an inelegant but admittedly useful exposition dump, in which Carroll’s Bodie patiently spells out all these relationships, complete with mug shots, as a primer for Forsythe’s Twilley.
The most memorable elements of Ida Red can be divided into two categories. There’s the stuff that sticks because it inspires that nagging what-does-this-remind-me-of feeling — like David Sardy’s overbearing score, which tries to impose Tenet-size grandeur on a modest and middling film that can’t possibly support it. Or Grillo’s performance as the mesh-shirted, cowboy-hatted Dallas, which borrows some of Matthew McConaughey’s sadistic charisma from Killer Joe. Or Leo’s combination of maternal warmth and icy resolve, which brings to mind a plainer version of the mom from Animal Kingdom.
And then there’s the stuff that stands out because it’s just plain inexplicable, like baroque wipe transitions that take the shape of crosses or shutters. There’s a suicide set to Madonna’s “Crazy for You,” because why not, and a long conversation set in a porn theater, also because why not. In the latter, the cinema screen is blurred to oblivion but the moans and groans become distracting background noise, desperately trying to inject some edginess into an otherwise dry exchange of information. Meanwhile, more than one twist is unveiled so awkwardly that a viewer might wonder if their mind had simply wandered off during a crucial moment earlier in the film, and feel compelled to rewind and check.
Most of Ida Red, however, doesn’t make much of an impression at all. The clichés pile up so quickly they almost seem like they might subvert themselves: Surely the romance between that rebellious teen niece and a local dirtbag (Nicholas Cirillo) isn’t going to end in the most predictable way possible? Surely there’s more to the perpetually cranky Agent Twilley than decades’ worth of cop stereotypes? But Swab’s storytelling never quite gets there. Everything in Ida Red is exactly what it seems to be, no less and certainly no more. Even Leo’s grittiness can only do so much to elevate a climactic monologue that spends most of its words simply recapping the backstory we know already, and barely even tries to reach for loftier themes or deeper emotions.
When Ida Red delivers its first fatal gunshot, about 10 minutes in, it comes as a jolt, sudden and graphic enough to signal that this film isn’t messing around. But a gun to the head becomes most everyone’s solution to most everything in this movie, and by the end of the movie, the sight of bullets tearing through bodies has become so familiar as to feel mundane. Nothing kills excitement like endless repetition — and Ida Red turns out to be just the latest faint echo of stories we’ve heard too many times already.