A Violent Separation sounds more like a chapter title than that of a complete novel, and so it is that the film comes off like a short story expanded but not properly developed to feature length.
As it happens, the screenplay by Michael Arkof is an original, a rural melodrama (set in Missouri, shot in Louisiana) set in 1983, possibly to keep cell phones out of the equation. Norman Young (Brenton Thwaites) is a cop whose biggest potential trouble is his own flesh and blood: his older brother Ray (Ben Robson). Not only does Ray have a penchant for fighting, he’s also cheating on his single-mom girlfriend, Abbey (Claire Holt), with floozy bartender El Camino (Francesca Eastwood). Beyond whatever bad-boy appeal might intrigue her, it’s hard to figure why Abbey puts up with Ray—whom she handcuffs while dancing with him at the bar where El Camino works—but things take a turn for the much-worse between them when Ray accidentally shoots Abbey dead during a drunken argument.
Already a two-time loser with the law, and with no one else to turn to, Ray begs Norman to help cover up his involvement in Abbey’s demise, and Norman reluctantly agrees. It’s a promising setup that could have led to a trip down one of two roads: a penetrating examination of guilt testing family bonds, or a good ’n’ twisty thriller with unforeseen developments threatening to trip up the brothers as the noose tightens around them. Instead, Arkof and directors Kevin and Michael Goetz (whose last feature was the Martyrs remake) attempt to split the difference and wind up with a movie that doesn’t work as either one or the other.
The Goetzes and their collaborators certainly get the look and sound right: Sean O’Dea’s cinematography captures attractive/ominous small-town atmosphere, and Evan Goldman’s doomy-ethereal score suggests tragedy on the horizon from the beginning. There are nice touches when Norman accompanies sheriff Ed Quinn (Ted Levine) as he begins to investigate what appears at first to be a missing-persons case: A police dog stops to take a sniff of Norman before heading into the field, and Quinn has an engaging way of talking out possible scenarios as he’s figuring them out in his mind. As the storyline stretches into the Christmas season and then the following summer, however, there’s neither enough depth nor incident to sustain interest. Meaty interactions between the characters are in short supply, as they keep walking out of scenes, or the movie cuts away from them, before they can really deal with their emotions and the situations at hand. When evidence starts turning up to expose what happened to Abbey, it doesn’t pique excitement but rather brings simple relief that something’s happening to jumpstart the humdrum plotting.
While Norman and Ray deal with their conflicted feelings about their shared secret, grief over Abbey’s death helps drive her sister Frances (Alycia Debnam-Carey) into Norman’s arms—and if he feels any (understandable) guilt about that, we never see it. Nonetheless, Debnam-Carey’s sensitive turn is the movie’s best performance—and she maintains the steadiest regional accent of the four Australian and British leads—even though Frances looks like she’s still in high school, hardly old enough to be romancing a local lawman. But then, Thwaites as Norman looks like he’s barely past his teen years himself. As the story meanders its way to a conclusion that misses the tragic power it’s striving for, viewers may find their interest separating from the movie—if not violently.