Blood on Her Name is a film of backroads, barns, trailers, and barrooms. It’s dark, grimy, and bruised from the offset. The world it inhabits is depressed and desperate, the kind of world where everyone is a victim of their own circumstances. Leigh Tiller (Bethany Anne Lind) is a struggling mechanic with an ex-husband in prison, a crooked cop as a father, and a dead man on the concrete before her. As she works to clean up the mess and dispose of the corpse, she’s struck with a crisis of conscious. She wants to return the body to its family. They deserve to know he’s dead and not left to wonder over his vanishing. She decides to save one sliver of her soul with a single act of contrition.
And in doing so she learns that a desire to do good only brings more bad.
Blood on Her Name
Director: Matthew Pope
Released: February 28, 2020 (Limited, VOD)
Leigh is trying to follow the straight and narrow. She’s holding up a mechanic shop after her husband had been arrested for running stolen cars through the business. She’s dealing with a son on probation for beating another child blind in one eye, and she’s struggling with her few remaining customers to pay the restitution necessary to to strike the boy’s infraction from his record and give him a clean start at life. Her father, Richard (Will Patton) is a cop hounding her and trying to insinuate himself into her and her son’s lives against her will. To top all this off, she’s killed a man and is failing to cover up the crime.
Most films portray murderers one of two ways: Either as hopeless incompetents who could never get away with their crime or as cold calculators always two steps ahead of the law. Leigh handles her corpse in a way fitting someone who’s grown alongside poverty, crime, and bloodshed. She cleans as best she can, rolls the corpse in plastic, and moves to dunk him in a lake. She still makes minor, human mistakes bred by anxiety and guilt. She loses a necklace and fumbles her coverup due to paranoia, fear, and the desire to be better than the town she inhabits. These undo her, but the question of how much better than those around her Leigh was in the first place becomes a matter of debate.
In classic thriller fashion, Blood on Her Name withholds its most important details. Why Leigh sees her father as such poison, why the dead man was at her shop in the first place, and perhaps even who killed the man are all saved for last-minute confessions and gloomy dreams. Little feels forced or artificial, however. Leigh’s desperation to hide whatever she can of her crime from her son, father, coworker, and even the dead man’s family plays to the cagey plot, and big reveals slip free in small turns of dialogue that feel natural and human. All we have to start our journey, though, is a woman at the height of desperation failing to overcome the bum lot in life she inherited and never had a chance to escape. Leigh is a force of manic energy, of an emotional state unraveling as quickly as the excuses and explanations she builds to protect both herself and her son. Soon she’s given up too much and all we can do is watch as her past eats her alive.
The world Matthew Pope builds is true. The long tail of America’s Great Recession is clear along the backroads of Georgia where the Southern Gothic imagery of dilapidated homes and muggy wilderness fill the wide-angled shots as beaten pickups rumble along barely paved roads. To understand why anyone would turn to crime here is to simply look around. Economic insecurity has held them down and now ruins a family three generations deep. Leigh despises her father as she turns into him, and her son Ryan (Jared Ivers) wants nothing but to do what’s right by his mother even if he has to end up like the father he barely knew and the granddad he’s estranged from. The family unit is a sympathetic portrait of inherited criminality, and you become attached to their hopelessness, their inability to escape the inevitable. This is film noir in the purest sense. There’s no escape from misery. Everyone has blood on their hands, and as the dead man’s son and girlfriend come after her, Leigh makes downright painful decisions that can only wind her deeper and deeper to a violent climax.
The photography is grimy, and Leigh is sweaty, bruised, and busted through the whole of the film as she barks out of confrontations, self-medicates, lies, and comes to terms with all the mistakes she’s made. Bethany Anne Lind is genuine and brilliant. She’s at once furious and fragile, in control and totally lost. Patton is also lived-in as a man who’s accepted his place in the violence of the world. He’s a lonely old codger on one hand and a hardened killer on the other. He’s a testament to the worst traits of masculinity--the false sense of righteousness, the desire to see violence as a means to an ends, and the need to control those around him. He decides he’s his family’s protector, so whatever he thinks or does is justified. And last there’s Ryan hopelessly dropped between the two, wanting to do good but having no way to even know what that means.
Unfortunately, not every moment holds to the same genuine emotional core as the whole. There’s a bit of misplaced romance and a fairly thriller-y turn at the end that didn’t strike me as much too believable. You’ll spend most of the film submerged in its desperation, but every once in a while an especially tinny line or turn of character will drag you up and remind you that you’re watching a movie. They’re small issues, but they do lessen the film’s impact.
Either way, Blood on Her Name is a deeply emotional thriller that never turns its eyes from the squalid. It’s fraught with emotional weight, heavy themes, and powerful performances. It’s just messy enough to feel true, and only stumbles its worst when attempting a tidy ending. All said, though, the film is much like Leigh’s dead man--it will refuse to be disappeared into the brackish backwaters of your subconscious.