Warning: this review will describe the basic premise of In the Shadow of the Moon. If you consider that a spoiler, then you should probably stay away. Don’t watch the trailer, either.
In the Shadows of the Moon is a movie that many will respect for its audacity. A murder mystery that unfolds over the course of several decades is ambitious enough, and the fact that it’s a time travel movie as well takes it to a different stratosphere. But when all that ambition is in service of a banal, ill-advised twist, I can’t appreciate it, no matter how much I want to love a Terminator/Zodiac mashup.
Our time-bending murder mystery begins in Philadelphia, 1988, where patrol officer Thomas “Lock” Lockhart (Boyd Holbrook) yearns to get promoted to Detective. He worries his pregnant wife (Rachel Keller) by working excessive nightshifts and pesters his brother-in-law Detective Holt (Michael C. Hall) for opportunities to show off his worth as an investigator. One strange night, Lock and his partner (excellently played by Bokeem Woodbine) follow a trail of crime scenes which lead them to a serial killer (Cleopatra Coleman), whom Lock promptly moves to arrest…and accidentally kills in the process.
Fast-forward nine years to 1997. For his work in apprehending “the Market Street Murderer,” Lock was rewarded with a detective badge. He’s also raising a daughter on his own, since his wife was fridged while giving birth. On the ninth anniversary of the murders (which is also the ninth anniversary of his wife’s death, daughter’s birth), a startlingly similar set of murders occur. When Lock chases down the suspect of the new murders, he discovers that she’s the exact same woman he killed nine years ago. This time, she disappears, leaving him with no answers but the warning that he needs to stop chasing her.
Nine more years pass, and…actually, I should probably stop here. I’ve already spoken too much, because In the Shadow of the Moon is the kind of movie where once you know the plot, there’s nothing of interest about it. The characters are just sketches whose only function is to hype up the film’s final twist. In the Shadow of the Moon is so proud of its time-traveling premise that it chooses to dangle it like a carrot instead of exploring it in any meaningful way, which makes it all the more embarrassing when the twist hits, and it turns out all the film was hiding was its ham-handed seventh-grade thesis.
Holbrook is charming enough in his role, but his performance isn’t helped by the film’s time-skipping conceit. While plenty of ink has been spilled in regards to how hard it was to get De Niro to look young for The Irishman, it is without a question harder to get young actors to convincingly look older, and In the Shadow of the Moon only has a fraction of The Irishman’s budget. By the time Lock enters his middle-ages, it’s just Holbrook scowling and wearing a prosthetic hairline, and the effect isn’t very convincing. His character Lock isn’t given much to do, either. He’s always three steps behind his time-traveling culprit, and for most of the movie, he exists only to receive the time-traveler’s boxes of exposition.
The most troubling part about In the Shadow of the Moon is how boring it is, but coming in at a close second is its dreadful thematic content. In a desperate bid to imbue its stakes with gravitas, the film keeps returning to a motif of racist violence. Police brutality and Black Lives Matter, white power hate groups, and the US Civil War all get alluded to, but they’re only alluded to. Our main character is a white police officer, yet he never has to wrestle with the difficult subject matter the film loves to employ in its periphery. There are few films which are this eager to address racism without actually saying anything.
The final moments of In the Shadow of the Moon run home its banality. I wouldn’t want to give away the twist—even though it’s a waste of time—but I will say it manages to feel both cloying and laughably edgy. Earlier in the review, I namechecked Zodiac and The Terminator, but In The Shadow of the Moon’s true progenitors are profundity-grasping melodramas like Life, Itself.