A bank robbery gone wrong plays out in reverse in Shimmer Lake, the first movie directed by 22 Jump Street writer Oren Uziel.
Benjamin Walker stars in the Netflix original as a small-town sheriff who realizes his brother, played by Rainn Wilson, is connected to the robbery alongside a local ex-con, played by Wyatt Russell. The film begins on a Friday and then plays backward through the days of the week, revealing plot twists and motivations as it peels away layers of resentments and violence.
Shimmer Lake is inspired by classic crime in many ways. "I love that stuff, I devour it," enthuses Uziel. "Hard Case Crime books, stuff published by Black Lizard, James M. Cain books and Dashiell Hammett, John Dahl movies like Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, and then A Simple Plan, Blood Simple. I love these movies."
But the most direct inspiration for the film is more unusual, rooted in the way people used to watch movies on cable TV in the '80s.
"I had this notion," Uziel recalls, "sort of born from watching HBO when I was a kid. I would watch whatever was on, at whatever point the movie was in. I would struggle to figure out who was who, then stumbling across the same movie five days later, but 30 minutes earlier in the movie. I'd realize, 'Oh, this scene is going to explain why that guy hates that guy so much.' Eventually you'd watch the whole movie, but in four or five chunks. And it was compelling! Then you'd watch the same movie, start to finish, and realize it wasn't remotely that interesting or that tense."
So the "dumb idea," as Uziel calls it, behind his first script was an attempt to replicate that experience. Perhaps because the untested writer was completely ignorant of all the difficulties inherent in the undertaking, it works and also stands as something quite different from Memento, another film that turns a reverse narrative into a central thesis.
Once in motion, Shimmer Lake almost featured Liev Schreiber in the lead role, and his choice to do another movie made a change in the story that worked out well for the film.
"The first bite we got was from Liev Schreiber," Uziel explains, "who I love as an actor." There was another project potentially in the way, however. "When I first sat down with him, he had this project The Bayonne Bleeder, which became Chuck. It was his passion project. He said, 'I'd love to do your movie, but if Chuck comes together I'm going to do that, because I've wanted to do it forever.'" That's precisely what happened; Chuck opened earlier this year.
After Schreiber fell away from the movie, Ben Walker came in and, Uziel says, "apart from the fact that Ben is perfect and fantastic, he's also 10 years younger." This isn't a case of younger being better, but with Walker as the key cast member, other choices were made around him. "Everybody aged down by a decade," Uziel says. "It was really useful for the tone of the movie. If everyone is 10 years older, it's sadder, more depressing."
Producer Adam Saunders explains how his job is always to think about how he can make sure that people will see the movie, and like it — and how that often involves casting actors who can help lock in foreign distribution from the get-go. So a thriller like this might typically end up with Bruce Willis or Nic Cage in the lead, because those guys are well-known in markets around the world, which helps producers lock in foreign pre-sales.
"We had discussions early on," Saunders says, "that were like, 'If we cast X actor, a lot of people are going to see this movie.' Then Oren would say, 'Yeah, but I don't think the movie is going to work.'" That led them to Walker. "With Ben Walker," Saunders reflects, "we felt so strongly that he was right for the role that we said, 'Well, the movie is going to have to work, because the movie works.'"
"When you start with the first couple casting choices being actors people really respect," Saunders adds, "what you end up with is an ensemble of really solid actors."
So Shimmer Lake features a surprising cast. In addition to Stephanie Sigman (Narcos, The Bridge) and Wyatt Russell in important roles, there's Rainn Wilson as the sheriff's boneheaded brother, Adam Pally as a dim-witted deputy, and Rob Corddry and Ron Livingston as hapless FBI agents.
"There are all these parts," Uziel notes, "characters who aren't leads but who are still there a lot. In this movie you can have a small role and still be spread through the entire movie. Getting someone like Ron Livingston to play his character is very fortunate. He can define something so quickly, he's such a pro."
Admittedly, it's strange to see some of this cast in a crime drama, but the ensemble is a big part of what makes Shimmer Lake different from other genre entries. "If you can do comedy," Uziel says, "I feel like you are tapped into a certain vulnerability that lets you do almost anything. I think these guys can do anything." So they're the ones that help humanize the movie, "a bunch of flawed or well rounded human beings," all of whom "get kinda banged around in this movie."
Uziel laughs about how some of the characters end up, but says, "I'm sympathetic to all of them. I like spending time with Rainn even though he's kind of a piece of shit. Reed may not be the smartest cop in the world, but he's so warm. The feds are, by their own admission, the lowest guys on the totem pole, but they try hard, they mean well."
I spoke to Saunders and Uziel just after the Cannes Film Festival, where arguments erupted about the legitimacy of Netflix's efforts, which won't always play in theaters. But in the modern film marketplace, companies like Netflix and Amazon are among the few that can make and/or launch a film such as this one.
Uziel is enthusiastic about the backing. "For a company to appear and provide an avenue for 100 million people to get a chance to see a movie like this — I don't know how many are going to watch, but they'll have a chance to — I am very excited to have a platform like Netflix." Shimmer Lake is a good example of the sort of mid-budget movie we always say doesn't get made any longer, because they don't work in the modern distribution economy.
To get audiences to see "a movie in the low millions in the budget range," Uziel explains, requires "spending $20–30 million. It's crazy. Whereas Netflix, they can spend far less and promote it instantly in their ecosystem."