[Review] Beneath the Leaves
The 1990s saw a resurgence of a specific kind of serial killer movie, likely spearheaded by the success of Silence of the Lambs and then helped along with Seven, years later. I’m talking about movies like Kiss the Girls and The Bone Collector, featuring detectives hot on the trail of a murderer who typically has some zany, zealous obsession with killing and taking souvenirs or leaving body parts as calling cards.
It’s a trend that’s kind of gone out of style since the book-fueled heyday. So, imagine my surprise when I started watching Beneath the Leaves because, cast aside, it feels like a movie filmed in the 90s and then shelved until now.
It begins with a nasty little cold open that made me feel incredibly uncomfortable and comes with all sorts of sexual and kinder trauma trigger warnings. A woman and a man violently argue, while two kids, presumably their foster kids, try not to get their attention. It ends with the man getting locked in a room and the house being set on fire, before segueing to the present with another fire. This time, it's at a prison, where a small group of prisoners have escaped.
We are quickly introduced to our two protagonist detectives, Erica (Mira Sorvino), whose last name, I shit you not, is Shotwell, and Brian Larson (Kristoffer Polaha). Their gruff boss Captain Parker (Paul Sorvino) has assigned them with rounding up the escaped convicts. But then word comes in that one of the escapees is James Whitley (Doug Jones), who has been imprisoned for years, for kidnapping and killing orphaned foster kids to…uh…checks notes…reunite them with their biological parents?
Turns out Brian was one of the originally kidnapped kids who escaped with his three other foster brothers. He freaks, gets put on administrative leave and Detective Shotwell is saddled with a new partner named Detective Abrams (Aaron Farb) to recapture Whitley before he can finish what he started years ago.
So we have Erica and Abrams following clues and trying to track down the remaining foster brothers while Brian, now on leave, pursues his own personal vendetta to find Whitley himself. Then we have brief moments where Whitley goes around trying to kill the remaining four boys. And eventually the paths will all converge in typical fashion.
Okay, so Beneath the Leaves is an odd one. It has a weird energy and odd tonal changes. Erica’s new partner feels completely out of place in the story. With his greasy long hair and philosophical pontificating and wide-eyed-obsession with birds, he feels like he just stepped off the set of Twin Peaks. He even forces Erica to stop at a gas station so he can replace a broken coffee mug with one with cardinals on it. He’s an odd one that, of course, sees things that the other police officers do not and spends most of his time asking oddball questions and scribbling in his book.
Mira Sorvino, meanwhile, channels 90s Holly Hunter, with her determined stares and outfits and a fun hat. She's tough as nails, befitting a name like Shotwell, but kind and compassionate to what her previous partner and paramour (because, of course!) Brian is going through. Honestly, as I was watching this, I kept thinking back to Jenna Maroney’s brief foray into playing a detective on 30 Rock as she became Alexis Goodlooking who was good-looking and good…at looking for clues.
And of course Doug Jones brings a fey-like quality to his serial killer who also feels like a throwback to a time where criminals felt uncomfortably queer and had weird pseudo-religious reasons for killing his victims and taking bits from them (in this case, fingernails). Jones imbues his character with maximum creep value, I just wish they wouldn’t have added a sexual component to his killings. I’m completely over the kind of villain who is slightly on this side of being gay and a pervert. It’s reductive and, again, reminiscent of the prototypical 90s villain.
I will say that Beneath the Leaves is mostly well-acted and has a couple really creepy moments. You can kind of tell that a number of writers (four) were involved with the story by director Adam Marino. It’s odd in places and super serious in others. It sometimes dips into melodrama, but other times is incredibly effective. A mixed bag, but still entertaining.