Aharon Keshales’ “South of Heaven” is an under-the-radar crime-drama film that brings out the best in its leads. The story doesn’t take you down numerous twists and turns, but this sweet and heartfelt drama is one of 2021’s hidden gems.
“South of Heaven” begins with Jimmy (Jason Sudeikis), receiving early parole after serving 12 of his 15-year sentence to spend time with his childhood love Annie (Evangeline Lilly), who has roughly a year to live due to lung cancer. “You look like an angel,” says Jimmy. “Soon to be,” replies Annie in one of the dark, but funny moments of the film. Sudeikis returns to a wide-eyed Southern character like his recent turn as Ted Lasso with Jimmy and having him in a fully dramatic role benefits the oft-comedic actor.
The beginning of the film is very tender, as Jimmy adjusts to a normal life once again. He takes a bath, checks his weight, and spends missing time with Annie. Unfortunately, the outside world isn’t always as kind to Jimmy, and this is seen in his first meeting with his parole officer: Schmidt (She Whigham). Schmidt does end up giving Jimmy a job on a loading dock but eventually offers him a bigger job that “Ted Lasso(s)” Jimmy into an avalanche of a situation that he never intended for like Adam Sandler’s character in “Punch Drunk Love,” but with much higher stakes.
We’ve seen this story before; where an ex-con tries to lead a normal life after getting out of jail (e.g. “Carlito’s Way” or the recent “Blue Bayou”), and “South of Heaven” does not steer clear of the plot point. During the scene where Schmidt offers Jimmy an extra job to make more cash, he says “2 grams of pure parole violation” after planting drugs on Jimmy in order to blackmail him into doing the job. Jimmy does the job, and after narrowly escaping the handoff, he accidentally kills someone by hitting them with his car. Little does he know that he is getting rid of the body of a courier for Price (Mike Colter).
Frank (Jeremy Bobb) is the type of loyal friend that we all want. Though he ends up giving Jimmy’s information to Price after a misconception between him and Price. This sets the second half of the move into full swing.
After killing Jimmy’s parole office and holding Annie hostage, Jimmy is left with no choice but to kidnap Price’s son Tommy (Thaddeus J. Mixson). The moments shared between Jimmy and Tommy are one of the highest points in the film, as they share comedic quips. Though this is also where the movie drags, mainly because the scenes that Jimmy and Tommy share, while funny, have been done a million times before. Someone gets hurt in a moment that was telegraphed from a mile away.
A complaint that can be had with the film is underutilizing Evangeline Lilly, who is a household name. Granted, her character has one year to live, but there isn’t much of her at all once Jimmy gets back to work in the beginning. She also becomes the “damsel in distress” at one point, and really isn’t given much to do once captured. Sure, Annie does end up saving Jimmy’s life in one way or another, but for a movie that emphasizes the fact that her character has limited time, the same can be said about her screen time. It is disappointing as a fan of Lilly, because it always feels like her characters never get the proper time to shine with the exception of “Ant-Man & The Wasp.” Even still, this is easily the best work she has done in quite some time.
The acting in the movie is not the issue; Sudeikis, Lilly, Colter, Whigham, Bobb, and Mixson all fit perfectly into their roles. For a drama without much action, the cinematography still stood out when Jimmy channels his inner Liam Neeson and barrels through nameless henchmen. During all of this is a tracking shot that adds thrills to the scene. The script, though occasionally comedic, has a lot of very generic lines that keep “South of Heaven” a shade of great. That being said, it is far better for a movie that has received no marketing, and it deserves to be seen by the masses. The last 25 minutes or so feel a bit thrown together and rushed, but “South of Heaven” is a surprisingly heartfelt film that has the benefit of an A-list cast that will hopefully attract eyes to the film.
“South of Heaven” will have a limited release on October 8.