“The Scent of Rain and Lightning” has recently been compared to “Hell or High Water,” and in terms of authenticity and intimacy, the comparison makes sense. In terms of tone, grit, and its fitting slow-burn approach, though, this adaptation of Nancy Pickard’s novel is also reminiscent of “Winter’s Bone” and at times, it even plays a bit like a narrative version of “Making a Murderer.”
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 and unstable man sentenced for the murder, 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 the wrong man was convicted of killing her parents. Of course, Billy’s volatile behavior does nothing to suggest he’s innocent.
There are many strengths to speak of when talking about this movie, but one of the most effective aspects of “The Scent of Rain and Lighting” 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, 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 dare say that “The Scent of Rain and Lightning” impressed me more than Taylor Sheridan’s soon-to-be-released “Wind River,” which also features Robbins in a supporting role.
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 joy seeing ’80s staples Will Patton (“No Way Out”) and Bonnie Bedelia (“Die Hard”) on the 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”) as well. The highest of props goes to an electric Brad Carter (“True Detective”) whose Billy is as terrifying a live-wire act as they come. His unpredictable and vicious Billy makes Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s horrifying character in “Nocturnal Animals” look like a choirboy.
Screenwriters Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison have fashioned a mean and lean 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. Twenter and Robison also penned the underrated music-tinged drama “Rudderless” a few years back, and with “The Scent of Rain and Lightning,” it’s clear that this duo 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 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 Lighting” isn’t without its flaws. There are probably too many moments when Jody demands to know the truth, and as much as I adore The Flaming Lips, there’s a scene set to “Do You Realize” that felt a bit distracting to me in the context of the movie. Honestly though, these are minor quibbles. As a whole, “The Scent of Rain and Lightning” is gripping stuff and requires your undivided attention. Taking it a step further, for my money this film is even more satisfying and emotionally complex than the much cherished and similarly themed “Blue Ruin.”
Currently, this effective indie is on the film festival circuit. In fact, if you’re in the LA area, it’s playing at the “Dances With Films” festival June 11. For everyone else, I think it’s safe to say that “The Scent of Rain and Lighting” will hit theaters before the end of the year. It’s too good not to.