‘Anderson Falls’ is the name of a wide water cascade to be found in Bartholomew County, Indiana – but that is a long way from the urban LA setting of French director Julien Seri’s latest. This is a thriller about fathers and sons. First there is Mark Witver (Gary Cole) and his adult son Adam (Richard Harmon), who at the beginning of the film steal into an apartment at night and at gunpoint force Elizabeth (Vahina Giocante), the French artist working inside, to let them drug her and make her murder look like a suicide. Then there is Jeff, a rising LAPD Detective Jeff (Shawn Ashmore), who arrives home to find his wife Elizabeth dead in a bloody bath, while their young son Frankie (Judah Mackey) was asleep down the hall. The family name of Jeff, Elizabeth and Frankie is, as it happens, Anderson, and Jeff’s ensuing, obsessive pursuit of his wife’s killers will also be figured as a kind of descent. Anderson falls.
There is an imbalance to this film. On the one hand, its dialogue, with every character speaking only basic exposition-ese, is perfunctory at best, while its cat-and-mouse, cop vs killer mechanics are entirely generic (with neither Jeff nor his murderous antagonists coming with any kind of grounded plausibility), and its female characters – like Jeff’s former partner turned boss Kelly Alderman (Daniella Alonso) and his mother Angela (Lin Shaye) – are mere foils for Jeff, seemingly there to realise eventually that the raving, maverick detective was right all along, and that they should have listened to “the suicide guy” (as Jeff becomes known to colleagues) when he insisted that his wife was murdered.
Still, if the material in Anderson Falls is derivative and a bit threadbare, with a couple of lines that are leaden clangers (“I tried to think like they do, and now I know how they operate!”), it comes very slickly packaged. In Night Fare (2015), director Seri had already proven his way around the cool Eighties aesthetics of cinéma du look, and he and cinematographer Shan Liljestrand have shot Los Angeles wide and low – or sometimes from above – as a part neon-lit neo-noir, part Hopper-esque nostalgia-scape. Meanwhile editor Brody Gusar drives the action pacily forward through his use of match cuts and time lapses (a stakeout sequence in particular is presented with real economy and visual flair).
There is also a subversive flipside to the film’s morality. For if Anderson Falls appears to lionise the hero of its title, proving his every aberrant intuition to be stone-cold fact and his madness to have method, then that title’s second word points instead to Anderson’s journey downwards and darkwards. As Jeff relentlessly investigates the “bad guys” like “Batman” (as Frankie tellingly puts it, evoking one of fiction’s more ethically questionable crimefighters), he lets himself grow ever further apart from his own adoring son, and also begins losing his grip on reality. The clippings and pictures and scribblings and connective red strings with which he decorates his apartment walls turn out to look uncannily like the creepy basement of his quarry. Jeff’s conduct makes him the kind of creepy stalker on whom civilians call the cops – and like the Witvers (whose surname puns on the German for ‘widower’, a status that Jeff shares with Mark), Jeff seems chillingly comfortable with extra-judicial torture and even cold-blooded execution. Perhaps, after all, he does not have to try too hard to put himself, Manhunter-style, in the minds of psychopaths. In the end Jeff is pulled back from committing even further atrocities, or from discarding altogether the apparatus of legal justice, by the tempering presence of his own son; but much as Adam is no less a victim of his father’s misogynistic influence than an accomplice to his deadly compulsions, we are left to wonder what kind of male example Jeff may be setting for his own son, and how far from the tree the little Anderson will fall.
Anderson Falls was seen and reviewed at Glasgow FrightFest 2020.