Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Bad Son (Nasser/Insight/Lifetime, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I watched a surprisingly compelling Lifetime movie I’d been after for a while and had previously missed recording because of one glitch or another: The Bad Son, a chilling thriller which kicks off when Seattle police receive a report that 16-year-old Colleen Brennan (Kimberly Warnat) is missing. She ran away from her home in Ohio two years before and her parents never heard from her until she called them a week before their disappearance and told him she was coming home for a visit — only she never showed, and her dad Michael (Roman Podhora) has come to Seattle to look for her. The case falls to Detective Ronnie McAdams (Catherine Dent), a tough, no-nonsense figure at work but one who’s having trouble keeping her own 16-year-old daughter Christy (Tegan Moss) at home: Christy has already dropped out of high school, run off to Phoenix with a 20-something bartender, and when that didn’t work she slunk home but almost immediately got mixed up with Trey (Adam Battrick), a guy who works at a tattoo parlor and gets her popped when he takes her for a ride in a stolen car. Ronnie has worked for years without a partner but she gets assigned one on this case: Mark Petrocelli (Tom McBeath), a 30-year veteran who’s obsessed with two similar disappearances six and four years earlier, also high-school dropout runaways. (We saw the first of these cases play out in a pre-credits prologue.) What’s more, he’s convinced he knows who did it, and he’s certain that Colleen was murdered by the same person — security guard John David Finn (Ben Cotton, a fascinating actor I haven’t seen before because his major credits have been in films like The Chronicles of Riddick, Slither, 30 Days of Night: Dark Days and The Rock’s remake of Walking Tall; he’s dorky-looking but also attractive in a kind of lost teddy-bear way and one can readily see what the runaways whom he picks up find attractive about him), who killed Rebecca, beat her face in and poured acid on her face and hands post-mortem so it would be hard to identify her by facial features or fingerprints.

When Colleen’s dead body indeed turns up, Petrocelli is convinced he’s right, but he’s up against a formidable obstacle: Finn’s mother, Frances Reynolds (a marvelously chilling performance by Marilyn Norry), is a civilian employee of the Seattle Police Department, and as a result she has access to all the case reports and uses them to sabotage any case against her son and alert him to what the police are doing next with his case. She’s also filed innumerable complaints against Petrocelli with the Seattle PD’s Internal Affairs department. As the case develops it turns out that Mrs. Reynolds is not only covering up for her son but is actively involved in his crimes, while he’s a weakling who targets teenagers who look like mom did when she first married his dad (a servicemember who was killed); he’s driven not just by rage but a particular rage against his mother, who comes on like a lover as she tells him that virtually every woman he takes an interest in isn’t good enough for him. The crimes aren’t a folie à deux but a folie à trois, the third person being mom’s brother Gerry O’Connor (Paul Jarrett), who helped raise Finn when both his real dad and his stepdad (who lasted just long enough to give his mom the name “Reynolds” and died within a year, ostensibly of a heart attack, though from what we see it’s entirely possible that mom dispatched him) died before Finn’s first birthday. The cops are able to trace Finn’s latest girlfriend, another high-school dropout runaway named Rebecca Keenan (Shauna Kain), and catch him in the act of tying her up and handcuffing her to an overhead pipe in preparation for doing her in like he has the three others, with mom as an active co-conspirator and uncle as the lookout, and they’re able to arrest the Terrible Trio but can’t make the case until uncle, the only one of the three with any remaining moral sense at all, flips on the other two and turns state’s evidence.

It’s hard to believe that the case is based on a true story — the parallel between Finn targeting teenage runaway girls and Ronnie having a runaway daughter herself (who, not surprisingly, makes up with mom, moves back home with her and re-starts high school at the end) is a bit too forced and pat to make this believable as fact-based fiction — but that doesn’t matter: The Bad Son is a winner all the way around, powerfully written by Richard Leder, with Neill Fearnley’s direction blessedly free of the over-directorial tricks many Lifetime directors have laden their films with, and brilliantly acted by an impeccable cast. For once the actors playing the good guys aren’t overwhelmed by the actors playing the bad guys, good as Cotton and Norry are (Norry has some of the same sinister restraint as Hitchcock’s “cool blondes,” and if the Kim Novak character in Vertigo had survived that film one could easily imagine Norry’s character here as her 20 to 30 years later); the chemistry between the committed, energetic Dent and the dyspeptic, bitter McBeath rivals that between Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and makes one wish the producers of this had, as some posters suggested, pursued a TV series with the two leads playing the same cop characters (and there’s a hint of a continuation in a tag scene that indicates they’re going to continue to work as partners). The Bad Son is an example of Lifetime at its best, and I’m going to be haunted by Ben Cotton’s chilling banality-of-evil performance for a long time to come!