Gather round, beloved, as we mourn the passing of the mid-budget thriller for adults. This film genre found its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, an almost unthinkable time where movie theaters could be filled by a majority of grown-ups. The cause of death? Risk-averse Hollywood and risk-averse filmgoers.
Let me explain, or, to paraphrase one of our most beloved philosophers, let me sum up. It used to be that the cinematic landscape wasn’t choked by Avengers, Transformers, and other IP-related critters. That’s not to imply that studios had a laser-focus on producing unimpeachable works of art. There were always sequels, prequels, and reboots, and if anyone ever tells you about the old days “when movies used to be good,” I give you permission to roll your eyes at them so hard.
Alongside the Lethal Weapons, you had something else. They often starred folks like Richard Gere and Michael Douglas. They frequently had a “ripped from the headlines” feel with their plots. These were films like Unlawful Entry, Internal Affairs, and there was a sense of, “There are no robots or time travelers here. By God, this is sophisticated.”
For the most part, those films are long gone. Only…maybe they’re not? Streaming services still require content that can be made relatively inexpensively.* The mid-budget thriller for adults baton has been picked up by talented filmmakers around the world. The latest of those films is the Australian thriller Line of Fire. When it works, it’s compelling. When it doesn’t, though, it’s a mishmash of competing tones.
Samantha Romans (Nadine Garner) is a good cop. At least, she seems to be. She’s not hunting down scumbags on the mean streets or getting into gunfights with gangsters. Instead, she patrols what looks like a semi-rural Australian town. Part of her beat is the local school, and her son is one of the students.
There’s a school shooting. Samantha is on the scene, armed. She heads into danger…and freezes. Her hesitation costs the lives of twenty students, her son being one of them. Her world is annihilated, and it’s not the first time. Within the wreckage of her life, Samantha struggles to find purpose.
Jamie Connard (Samantha Cain) is a good journalist. At least, she used to be. Her career was put on hold to focus on having a family. Her husband Greg (Brett Cousins) is a good man and good father. Their son Cooper (Dashiell Maxwell) and daughter Kerry (Caitlyn Dickson) are delightful. But now that the kids are nearly grown, Jamie plots a return to journalism. She’s a long way from it, and the news blog she writes for isn’t exactly setting the world on fire.
And then, Jamie sees the news coverage of the school shooting, a school that she went to. She sees a way to revitalize her career, and a tell-all interview with Samantha is just the ticket. Samantha refuses to talk. Jamie pushes her to reconsider. Hard, and something shatters inside her. All that’s left of Samantha is the desire to teach Jamie a lesson in loss.
So…here’s the thing. I love chocolate cake. Love it, can’t live without it. I also love lasagna. Absolutely adore it. While I love both of those things, I would not love it if you smashed a chocolate cake into a pan of lasagna and served me a plate of that culinary abomination. The main problem I have with Line of Fire is that it’s two interesting and compelling movies that have collided into one another, creating a film at war with itself.
Don’t get me wrong, director Scott Major does solid work with tone, pacing, and setpieces. There’s a particularly strong scene midway through the film involving a phone call between Samantha and Jamie. Not only is that scene tense, we learn things about both women through their behavior and reactions. That’s exactly the kind of skillful direction you want from a thriller with a brain.
It’s the script by Christopher Gist that could have been streamlined. Part of the story is an absorbing drama about how we expect far too much from law enforcement professionals, and about rapacious media professionals content to treat tragedy as entertainment. The other part of the story is a Yuppies in Peril thriller, where a mom races against time to save her family from a mad genius with too many plans. Those two stories never mesh organically, and, as a result, we have emotional character work interrupted by Samantha laughing maniacally at Jamie’s anxiety. It’s frustrating since Gist has a number of thoughtful and clever ideas,** and you can’t say he’s written a half-assed script. I think another draft or two that definitively decided on what the story actually was and ruthlessly cut out irrelevant aspects would have been a wise move.
The cast doesn’t seem bothered by the uneven screenplay. In fact, both Nadine Garner and Samantha Cain go as hard as they possibly can. I admired Cain for her willingness to portray Jamie as a loving mom, a great spouse, and a careerist willing to exploit her subject. A lesser actor would have shown us a saintly Jamie being needlessly terrorized. Cain’s performance is more complex, and while nobody deserves what her character goes through, she sets it off. I also admired Garner for not playing Samantha as a one-dimensional psychopath. She does strong work as a woman who was always sure she’d protect her child.*** When she finds out the truth, the knowledge breaks her. Cain and Garner have a spiky kind of chemistry I enjoyed, that of two women with distinctive viewpoints who genuinely dislike one another.
Line of Fire is not based on intellectual property. There’s no mid-credits scene where The Punisher shows up. It’s a modestly budgeted film with something to say, even if what that subject is and how it’s said is muddled. Does it herald a resurrection of the mid-budget thriller for adults? Perhaps, and I await the arrival of more films like it with great curiosity.
*And when I say “relatively inexpensive,” I mean a movie with a $70 million budget as opposed to a $250 million budget.
**One worth mentioning is a scene where Jamie talks with her husband, Greg, and devises a scene to force Samantha into an interview. How does Greg respond? He tells his spouse that he loves her but that she’s acting like an enormous dick. Calling out your protagonist’s flaws is good screenwriting.
***Yet another aspect of this film I admire is the concept that parents talk a big game in terms of protecting their kids. That’s a gutsy as hell approach.