Shimmer Lake (2017) Review: Twisty thriller is a curious experiment with plenty of surprises

Shimmer Lake is a 2017 crime drama about a small town bank heist gone wrong and the sheriff who tries to solve the mystery behind it.

A good hook can make or break a film, with a clever narrative or visual device tripping up viewers to make for a unique experience that both challenges and entertains. Think of classics like Christopher Nolan‘s Memento or Quinten Tarantino‘s Pulp Fiction, films that play with structure and timelines to create a disjointed story that keep audiences guessing while engaged. With Shimmer Lake, the latest thriller from Netflix, there are a couple of hooks in the works and both succeed in grabbing attention in a movie that is curious for certain, if not overly-ambitious.

The first hook is the timeline. Told in reverse from Friday back a week, the story follows the investigation of three men, Ed (Wyatt Russell), Andy (Rainn Wilson), and Chris (Mark Rendall) suspected of robbing the local small town bank. After them is Sheriff Zeke Sikes (Benjamin Walker), who is Andy’s brother and a friend from way back to Ed, the former high school football star quarterback. Joining the hunt for the men are two FBI agents Kyle (Ron Livingston) and Kurt (Rob Corddry), who are more than happy to let Zeke handle the legwork, which leads to the bank’s owner and town judge, Brad Dawkins (John Michael Higgins) and Ed’s distraught wife Steph (Stephanie Sigman), who is still reeling from the lose of their five-year-old son in an accident the year before out on, you guessed it, Shimmer Lake.

Directed by Oren Uziel, in his feature debut, Shimmer Lake is a puzzler and if you’ve read the names of the cast in this drama, you might already have guessed the second hook, that being a thriller populated mostly by actors primarily known for their comedic work. This doesn’t mean the film has no humor because it actually does, though more in the vein of a Coen Brothers film than anything else. This is a dark film, and yet small moments get well-earned laughs, mostly at the expense of Deputy Sheriff Reed Ethington (Adam Pally), who finds himself literally in the backseat of it all, time and time again. Admittedly, the movie is dry – dusty barren out in the desert barren dry – led by Walker’s deadpan acerbic performance that is either going to convince you he is blisteringly sharp in the role or barely interested in this project. For me, it was the first, his unshakable disposition a mark of absolute stability in a world gone mad.

The real fun though is in deciphering the film’s backward plotting, which, when it all ends – or rather begins – makes everything clear, even if you might want to play back a few steps to makes sure you got it all in the right order. That’s not a complaint but a testament to how well the story unfolds. You are genuinely curious and by the start of the second day, Thursday in the timeline, you’re paying much more attention to the details as themes repeat and clues are revealed. You might think you know what’s happening, but no, you don’t.

While the film’s structure and Uziel’s camera are the real draw here (it would be a worthy experiment to play the movie’s days in the proper chronological order and see if it is as good), there are some very strong performances and plenty of solid drama, even if one nagging thread involving Andy’s daughter feels unresolved. If you’re up for a fun challenge and enjoy movies that work like puzzle pieces, Shimmer Lake will have lots to offer, a clever and well-written little gem that is worth adding to your queue.