Every nine years, a mysterious killer resurfaces for one day only. The victims die from a disease no one has ever seen and their deaths appear to be unrelated. And yet, one man is obsessed enough to keep investigating the case, every nine years.
That’s the set-up to the new Netflix original movie In the Shadow of the Moon, directed by Jim Mickle. The film mixes the procedural crime elements of David Fincher’s Zodiac with a time-travel conceit that nearly mirrors James Cameron’s The Terminator, all in a much lower-tech, ground-level way. The aforementioned police officer is named Locke and he’s played by Boyd Holbrook (The Predator). We first meet Locke in 1988, as a Philadelphia beat cop working the graveyard shift with his pregnant girlfriend at home. He gets called out to investigate a mysterious bus accident and quickly figures out that three people on the same night all died in the same manner, all across the city. It’s a night that’ll change his life.
The opening 1988 section of the film plays a greatest hits of all the best cop action movies you can think of: Lethal Weapon, Training Day, LA Confidential, you name it. The whole sequence—from the moment the deaths begin until the evening ends—is kinetic and exciting. Locke, along with his partner Maddox (Bokeen Woodbine), traverse back and forth across Philadelphia, piecing together clues at an alarming pace, leading to an edge-of-your-seat showdown with the killer. The identity of the killer isn’t the mystery in In the Shadow of the Moon. The mystery is why she (played by Last Man on Earth’s Cleopatra Coleman) is killing and, eventually, how she keeps coming back.
And come back she does. Again and again. Every nine years. Which leads to the lifelong obsession that’s the driving force in the film. Each time the story moves ahead, Locke learns a little more, gets a little closer, but can’t quite figure it all out. And that idea of nine years of anticipation leading to one day of possibility is a fascinating one. The ticking clock adds a level of tension on top of what’s already cool and engrossing about everything else. Those time constraints also add hardship for Locke because, every nine years, things change drastically for him. He gets new job titles, his family grows further apart, he gets increasingly paranoid, and, as he begins to realize that maybe this killer is coming from another time, he becomes more of an outcast too.
If In the Shadow of the Moon was just a sci-fi murder mystery, that would be fine. But the film works even better because Locke is its most important element. While the murders may be what drives him, his arc is what keeps the film moving, engaging, and operating on another level of emotion. Holbrook exhibits a strong grasp on the character in all his different facets and gives one of his best performances to date. We see changes in how he interacts with his daughter (played by multiple actresses over the film), his brother in law (played by Dexter himself, Michael C. Hall) and, yes, the killer, who obviously becomes more transparent as the film builds to its satisfying, excellent climax.
It also helps that, despite having a strong sci-fi throughline, almost everything about the film feels tangible and believable. It’s all set in Philadelphia, first in 1988, then 1997, 2006, etc. The city ends up becoming another character in the film and it’s so familiar, it—probably unintentionally, but nonetheless rewardingly—makes Locke’s journey even more formidable. We know what he’s up against: the real-life problems of this world, because it’s our world. And this guy is over here talking about time travel? No wonder he’s going nuts.
If anything, the only bad thing about In the Shadow of the Moon is the title In the Shadow of the Moon. The film does its best to give that title a justification but, really, it feels like it’s only called that because TimeCop was taken and Detective Decade sounded stupid.
In the Shadow of the Moon is an excellent blend of sci-fi, drama, and action. It has good character work in a complex, mysterious story, with set pieces that maybe aren’t the biggest, but drive the action forward and still manage to entertain. Fans of police procedurals will find twists and turns that would make Law and Order proud, while sci-fi nuts will have a ball breaking down the timeline. On almost every level, it’s one of Netflix’s best original movies to date.
In the Shadow of the Moon had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest 2019 and comes to Netflix September 27.
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