Ever since the Coen Brothers seemed to spring full-born from the head of an under-worshipped Hollywood god, delivering their no-budget black gem Blood Simple (1984), young filmmakers have tried to duplicate the impact of that twisty, fat-free neo-noir. In the past few decades, a close heir has been writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s bloody, mournful tale of a deadly family feud, Blue Ruin (2013). His follow-up two years later, Green Room with the late Anton Yelchin, was also great, grisly fun, concerning a punk band that plays a gig in exactly the wrong racist roadhouse.
Both films lacked the Coens’ prankish black humor. The same could be said for Blood on Her Name, cowritten and directed by Atlanta’s Matthew Pope in his feature debut — but humor isn’t a prerequisite for film noir. It’s a personal preference. Otherwise, this is an honorable entry in the genre, now playing at Marietta’s Studio Movie Grill (through March 4) and available for streaming. It’s flawed, but it’s a tightly wound, mournful thriller about a young woman in a very bad situation.
That’s Leigh Tiller (longtime Atlanta stage, film and TV actor Bethany Anne Lind). We meet her in her auto shop, standing over a black pool of blood flowering across the concrete floor from the bashed-in head of a dead man whose name we don’t yet know. Apparently she killed him. The how and why will come later, but first she has to decide what to do. That the blood looks black is in keeping with the movie’s gray, desaturated palette.
Slowly we learn the dead man’s connection to Leigh, to the auto shop and to her husband, who’s stewing in jail. In the meantime, though, this single mom of teenage son Ryan (Jared Ivers) must decide what to do with the body. She dials 911, but doesn’t hit send. Here’s where the crux of the drama in Blood is born: Should she dump the corpse where it can never be discovered, or leave it where his longtime girlfriend, Dani (Elisabeth Röhm), and son Travis (Jack Andrews) can find it and have closure.
Leigh’s decision-making skills aren’t helped much by the white pills she’s popping, a reference to the national opioid crisis that’s nicely acknowledged here but doesn’t oversell. The drugs knock her out or send her into fugue states that elicit flashbacks of herself as a little girl in the back of her dad’s car on a traumatic night long ago.
Enter said dad, the local sheriff, Richard Tiller (Will Patton, who elevates every movie). To say that Richard has a flexible relationship with the law he’s supposed to uphold is an understatement . . . but that flexibility might work in Leigh’s favor. And Leigh, we discover, isn’t exactly the helpless, innocent woman she seems to be.
In a difficult role that keeps her center-frame in nearly every scene, Lind holds her own. I just wish — this is more of an issue with the script and the direction — that we got to glimpse Leigh in a lighter moment and not so thoroughly beat up and worn out. In its committed misery, the performance is almost exhausting (that’s not meant as criticism). Patton is, predictably, his fine, sinister, insinuating self. There’s also good supporting work from Jimmy Gonzales as Leigh’s upstanding mechanic and friend, and Röhm, delivering a couple of small but potent moments.
Logistically, Blood on Her Name doesn’t always hold up. I jotted down a couple of “where-did-character-X-disappear-to” and “how-did-she-drag-Y-all-that-way-by-herself” notes while watching it. Mostly, though, it’s a coherent piece of work and a strong calling card for Pope and screenwriting partner Don M. Thompson. Like any good, hard-edged film noir, Blood builds its tension on the bitter irony that, for the characters stuck in its narrative, doing the right thing might be the worst thing they can do.