South of Heaven opens with a buoyant animated credits sequence that promises something akin to a ’60s caper movie, and then quickly devolves into a repetitive, irritating and pointless stylistic exercise, winking so heavily at its ironic use of genre elements from spaghetti Westerns and film noir that it’s nearly an insult to the scrappy B-movies from which it allegedly takes its inspiration.
- South of Heaven
- Aaron Nee, Adam Nee, Shea Whigham
- Directed by J.L. Vara
The story follows the separate but ultimately converging tales of brothers Dale and Roy Coop (played by real-life brothers Aaron and Adam Nee). In a sort of timeless fantasy era, part 1940s and part current day, Roy comes home from serving in the military to find his brother on the lam and a pair of goons at his doorstep ready to punish him for the abduction of a local crime boss’ daughter.
That particular act was actually perpetrated by Dale and his violent, unhinged partner Mad Dog (Shea Whigham), who are now running from the law after a particularly unpleasant crime at a sweet 16 party. Writer-director J.L. Vara switches between the two storylines, both of which hit the same beats over and over: Innocent Roy is tortured for his brother’s crimes, while only slightly less innocent Dale is terrorized by the insane Mad Dog.
Vara keeps an ironic distance from the material via deliberately fake-looking sets, costumes and makeup, but whatever he might have to say about B-movies is lost in the annoying unpleasantness of the story, which plods along with no purpose toward an ugly and empty conclusion. The Nees sort of simper their way through the film as the mostly spineless Coop brothers, and Whigham is appropriately menacing but rather one-note as Mad Dog. Vara, too, can’t get past his single grating approach to the material, and the movie ends up as repugnant and mean-spirited as Mad Dog himself—and just as deserving of a painful death.