Movie Review: “The Scent of Rain and Lightning” (R)
“The Scent of Rain and Lightning” has been on the film festival circuit for quite a while, and in fact, I’ve written about the movie here at The Independent in the past. On Feb. 16, this terrific film is finally getting a much deserved release.
“The Scent of Rain and Lightning” has recently been compared to “Hell or High Water,” and in terms of authenticity and character detail, the comparison makes sense. In terms of tone, grit, and its fitting slow-burn approach, though, this adaptation of Nancy Pickard’s best-selling novel is more reminiscent of “Winter’s Bone.” That said, “The Scent of Rain and Lightning” is still very much its own thing.
In this cold and dramatic character-driven tale of murder, an emotionally distraught Jody Linder (played by Maika Monroe) tries to piece together clues at the center of a mystery involving the untimely death of her parents years earlier. An angry reconnection with her traumatic past resurfaces when Billy (Brad Carter), the violent, unstable man sentenced for the murders, is ultimately released from prison. Initially, Jody is quick to confront Billy, but shortly thereafter, truths come to the surface that lead Jody to the realization that maybe things aren’t as they seem. Is it possible that this man wasn’t actually responsible for the murders? Without giving too much away, Billy’s volatile behavior doesn’t do much to suggest he’s innocent.
There are many strengths to speak of when talking about this richly textured movie, but one of the most effective aspects of “The Scent of Rain and Lightning” is the story structure. Rather than telling this tale by way of a straightforward narrative, actor-turned-director Blake Robbins keeps audience members on their collective toes by jumping back and forth between the present and the past. It’s all a bit jarring in the early goings, but in the end, it’s a perfect device for this particular story. As Jody delves deeper into her own private investigation, “The Scent of Rain and Lightning” jumps back in time, giving us insight into who her parents were before that fateful day, and as expected, the relationship was … complicated.
Robbins, who also has a bit part in this film, directs the tightly wound proceedings with a raw and stark intimacy that puts character above all else. His experience as an actor certainly serves him well here, and I daresay that “The Scent of Rain and Lightning” impressed me more than Taylor Sheridan’s much beloved 2017 release, “Wind River,” which subsequently also featured Robbins in a supporting role. It also cuts deeper than the similarly themed “Blue Ruin.”
The performances here are outstanding. Monroe, who greatly impressed in “The Guest” and “It Follows,” continues to prove she’s a star on the rise, beautifully balancing anger, sadness, and vulnerability in equal measure. As Jody’s affection-seeking mother, the lovely Maggie Grace (“Taken”) has never been better. Likewise, Justin Chatwin (“War of the Worlds”) is subtle and strong as Jody’s lost soul of a father. It’s also a pure joy seeing ’80s staples Will Patton (“No Way Out”) and Bonnie Bedelia (“Die Hard”) on screen again as Jody’s concerned grandparents.
While the entire ensemble is solid — watch for memorable work from Mark Webber (“Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World”) and Aaron Poole (“The Void”) — one of this film’s most notable performances comes courtesy of an electric Brad Carter (“True Detective”) whose Billy is as terrifying a live-wire act as they come. Carter’s unpredictable and vicious loose cannon of a man makes Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s horrifying and despicable character in “Nocturnal Animals” look like a choirboy by comparison.
With “The Scent of Rain and Lightning,” screenwriters Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison have fashioned a lean and mean murder mystery with complex characters and an undeniably authentic feel for the film’s Oklahoma locale. The screenplay is every bit as rich and provocative as it is upsetting and tragic. This outstanding writing team also penned the underrated music-tinged drama “Rudderless” a few years back, and with this film, it’s clear that Twenter and Robison wanted to tackle something entirely different with their follow-up project. Mission accomplished. Pickard’s novel is about family, dysfunction, love, forgiveness, dark secrets, the ties that bind, and the bad decisions that we sometimes tend to make — decisions that can’t be altered. Twenter and Robison have ensured that these themes are completely intact in this solid adaptation.
Admittedly, “The Scent of Rain and Lightning” isn’t without its flaws. There are probably one too many moments when Jody demands to know the truth about her parents, and as much as I adore The Flaming Lips, there’s a scene set to “Do You Realize” that feels a bit distracting. Honestly, though, these are minor quibbles. “The Scent of Lightning” is pretty gripping stuff. It’s darker in nature, and it isn’t exactly the feel-good movie of the year, but it’s well executed, and it sticks with you.
“The Scent of Rain and Lightning” will see a limited theatrical run Feb. 16, but if it isn’t playing in your neck of the woods, you can catch it On-Demand on the same day. A Blu-Ray and DVD release will follow on March 20.