By Jeff Farr

Red Flag Releasing / Aliquot Films

A most unfortunate small-town police procedural, “Meskada” is one to avoid. Everything is oddly off in this earnest yet amateurish production until the third act. Things then get completely derailed.
You know you are in trouble when a crime film, in its very first scene, lets you know exactly who the bad guys are. In this case, it is two ne’er-do-wells (Jonathan Tucker and Kellan Lutz) who bungle a house robbery by killing a boy who they did not realize was at home.
This pretty much deflates any drama for us that might surround the subsequent dogged investigation led by a local detective (Nick Stahl) to discover and apprehend the criminals. As matters proceed, it is difficult to swallow how Stahl gets unbelievable lucky break after lucky break in his quest for justice.
One example: Stahl just happens to go through the one trashcan in town that turns up the one ridiculous clue—a scrap of paper, no less—that leads him back to his hometown, where the killers just happen to be hiding out. The extremes this movie goes to bank on coincidence pushes us further and further away from caring about what is transpiring onscreen.
Josh Sternfeld’s screenplay is at many points baffling. In addition to continually asking us to suspend our disbelief, the script rushes about like a rabid animal through more half-baked scenes and ideas than anyone would want to see.
Stahl’s home life, for instance, is prominently featured but curiously undeveloped. While Stahl and an attractive county detective (Rachel Nichols) develop a buddy-buddy relationship at work, an undefined cloud hangs over Stahl, his wife, and their young son at home. In one disturbing and unnecessary little scene, Stahl for some reason allows his son to play with his gun in the house.
The most memorable lines in this film are unfortunately the stinkers. One particular favorite: “Cops don’t believe in miracles,” one criminal solemnly tells the other.
The third act mysteriously gets bogged down in a series of nearly incomprehensible city council meetings. The affluent town where the crime took place and the impoverished town harboring the criminals fall into some kind of a mini-civil war having something to do with a manufacturing plant.
Things hit a fever pitch when, at one town meeting, the murdered boy’s mother (Laura Benanti), a woman of prominence, simply loses her mind and begins to scream wildly: “I do not care what’s right anymore! I can’t sleep! I can’t eat! I want the man who killed my son! I want the man who killed my son!”
Sternfeld is also the director of “Meskada,” but his helming gives everything a stiff, awkward feel. Many sequences are awkwardly staged, painfully so—especially a crucial one at a local fair—and the actors, especially Stahl, seem uneasy in their mostly one-note roles. It is as if they are waiting for someone to tell them what this movie is all about and what they are doing here.
Stahl’s part is ostensibly a tough guy not averse to breaking the rules if he does not get his way—even, in one of the film’s craziest scenes, smashing up a bar in his hometown with a baseball bat while his old friends watch dumbfounded—but the actor never emanates any convincing toughness. His brow is often furrowed and he never lets loose a smile, but that is as far as it goes.
Nichols sports a Jodie Foster look and vibe as his buddy cop, but her character is woefully underwritten. In scene after scene, she is somewhere in the background as, for all intents and purposes, a nice-looking mannequin. Why even include this character if she is not going to have any dramatic function?
Benanti, meanwhile, seriously overdoes her role as the aggrieved mother in every scene in which she appears. This is a case where the director should have stepped in and helped her rein it in, which leads us to wonder if Sternfeld was instead egging her on to chew up as much as scenery as she possibly could, as fast as she could.
The film’s most original idea is to mix a procedural with this civil war between the two towns, Hilliard (affluent) and Caswell (impoverished). But for that kind of idea to work, the towns themselves need to come alive as characters in the movie. They need to become as essential to the story as any of the other key characters. That certainly does not happen in “Meskada”: Sternfeld fails to create any tangible sense, through his screenplay or the film’s visuals, of how these towns might be opposites: we are told that Hilliard and Caswell are worlds apart, but we are never shown this.
Stahl’s character, we learn, has not been back to his hometown, Caswell, for many years. But how many miles is Caswell actually from Hilliard? From what we are shown, the distance looks like a daytrip at best. So we never get a clear sense of the geography involved. This would have been crucial for this core element of the film to be effective.
If Sternfeld intended “Meskada” to be a film of our times—in alluding, through the ill-defined plight of Caswell, to our country’s current economic woes—he falls far short.
Noah Cordin – Nick Stahl
Leslie Spencer – Rachel Nichols
Eddie Arlinger – Kellan Lutz
Shane Loakin – Jonathan Tucker
Nat Collins – Grace Gummer
Billy Burns – James McCaffrey
Allison Connor – Laura Benanti
Dennis Burrows – Norman Reedus
A Red Flag Releasing / Aliquot Films release.
Directed and written by Josh Sternfeld.
Produced by Jen Gatien, Shawn Rice, Jay Kubassek, Michael Goodin.
Director of Photography, Daniel Sariano.
Editor, Phyllis K. Housen.
Score by Lee Curreri, Steve Weisberg.
Running time: 88 minutes.