Monday, May 23, 2016

Marriage of Lies (Marvista Entertainment, Cartel Pictures, Lifetime, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Marriage of Lies, last Saturday’s Lifetime “world premiere,” turned out to be a surprisingly good suspense thriller, helped by the fact that it contains no openly violent scenes until the very end, one that puts its heroine into a Kafka-like peril that’s frightening but plausible and keeps us identifying with her throughout. The heroine is Rachel Wilson (April Bowlby), who seems to be living a nice life in a small town with her husband Tye (Brody Hutzler) and their daughter Ella (Faith Graham). Then Tye suddenly disappears one morning and Rachel spends the next two days rather desultorily looking for him, including stopping by the high school where he’s a teacher and athletic coach and trying to get information out of the students in his classes, including one young woman who definitely has a crush on him. Two days after he disappears, Rachel reports him to the police as missing, and the investigation spirals out of control as the police — Detective Roper (Zachary Garred) in particular (he’s the partner of Gus [Corin Nemec], an older, more Clint Eastwood-esque cop who’s more skeptical of the obvious conclusion that Rachel did something to her husband) — decide that Tye must have met with foul play and Rachel must be the guilty party. The people in this small town — who, like those in virtually all movie small towns, make it a point of getting into each other’s business and gossiping about each other — decide Rachel is guilty even before the cops do, though one has to wonder throughout this whole movie, “Guilty of what?” (Apparently Presumed Guilty was the film’s working title, and it might have been a better one for it.) There’s no trace of what happened to Tye, no hint that he’s either living or dead — certainly there’s no body, and no one has any idea what might have happened to the body if Rachel (or someone else) murdered him. Rachel finds herself beset by her next-door neighbor from hell, town gossip DeeDee (Marcia Ann Burrs), as well as a freelance videographer who (like most of these “types” in movies) wears a Walter Winchell-style hat and seems to be modeling himself after the great gossip columnist of old, and whose schtick is to ambush Rachel and shove his camera in her face, demanding that she tell “the truth” about whatever is going on when she has no idea of what is going on. Rachel’s only confidante is her long-time friend Jessica (Virginia Williams), who works at the local bar and who eagerly joins in the search for Tye, alive or dead. Once she realizes that the cops suspect her of either knocking off her husband or arranging her disappearance, Rachel hires an attorney, Dylan (Ryan Bittle, an unusually hunky actor for a Lifetime good guy), with whom she has an off-balance relationship because she’s not convinced he thinks she’s innocent and he tells her that doesn’t matter; his job is to represent her interests whether she did anything criminal or not.

As the story progresses we learn more about Rachel that makes it understandable why so many people in town are suspicious of her; it seems that four years earlier she got pregnant for a second time, but miscarried and thereby denied Tye the son he had always wanted, and the trauma of this had led to Rachel being hospitalized for several months (with Tye being forced to take care of her) and then put on anti-depressants, which she mixes with alcohol in defiance of the warning labels. The police also suspect her because when she approached them she seemed too calm, not emotional enough — which leads to a nice speech in which Rachel asks them how she was supposed to react: screaming and flailing her arms about? (We get the feeling Rachel is the sort of person whose response to any problem is to be taciturn and seemingly emotionless.) The townies turn against her and she finds herself stalked not only by that Winchell-redux freelancer with a video camera but the mainstream media as well, who stake out her house and shove their cameras in her face looking for “comments,” and at one point the cops are interrogating her, she says, “My lawyer is on his way,” but they keep right on asking her questions until he does show up and tells her not to talk any further. Eventually the cops put her under arrest (though they never say for what) and, while she apparently bails herself out, she’s still under suspicion of murder and seemingly headed for a trial. I had the feeling writer Brian D. Young ( lists Matt Hamilton as a “contributing writer,” whatever that means, but Young’s was the only writer’s name I noticed on the credits) was going to pull the gimmick of Cornell Woolrich in Phantom Lady and Black Angel of having the person ostensibly helping the central character solve the crime be the criminal him/herself, and that’s just what happened: it turns out Tye is alive and is being hidden out by Jessica, with whom he’s been having an affair for years. He’s also been having an affair for years with the woman realtor who sold him and Rachel the house they’ve been living in, and though Tye supposedly confessed all years before, the realtor left her card behind at their house and nosy neighbor DeeDee picked it up and, even before Tye disappeared, asked Rachel if they were planning to sell the house. What’s more, the realtor is pregnant with Tye’s baby; she’s four months along and they’ve already done the test and found out it’s going to be a boy.

Eventually Rachel realizes Jessica and Tye are in cahoots when she watches Ella on her surveillance camera (she’s got her daughter’s room bugged!) and realizes that Tye has come in when Ella tells her she had a “dream” that she saw her dad — only that wasn’t a dream; it was Tye and Jessica cooing over Ella and Jessica telling her that pretty soon she will be theirs and Rachel will be out of the picture. But because the video doesn’t show Tye — Rachel has only Ella’s word that he was indeed there — it’s not enough proof to get the police off her case. She traces Tye to a cabin by the lake they own, though Tye told her he sold it to pay her medical bills, where he’s had Jessica tie him up so it will look like Rachel kidnapped him and Jessica rescued him and killed Rachel in self-defense. (At least that’s what I think was supposed to have happened; the writing and Danny J. Boyle’s direction got a bit unclear at this point.) Instead Jessica has a moment of conscience and can’t go through with it, so Tye “escapes” from his (prop) bonds, shoots her and then turns the gun on Rachel, only they struggle, Rachel grabs the gun and holds it on Tye until the cops (alerted by Rachel’s attorney) arrive, the older cop grabs the gun from Rachel’s hand, they arrest Tye, Jessica survives and exonerates Rachel, and the film ends with Rachel driving away from the house, with a “For Sale by Owner” sign on its lawn, and with both Ella and hot young attorney Dylan in tow. Though the plot stretches credibility at points — the script even has the older cop say, “All this trouble to get rid of your wife? Hadn’t you ever heard of divorce?” — Marriage of Lies is a nicely done thriller, lacking the melodramatic excesses of a lot of Lifetime productions, holding audience interest and making us care about Rachel even though a lot of the time she seems like her own worst enemy, with her indifferent attitude and cavalier approach to her meds. (At the end she realizes she doesn’t need the psych drugs anymore and flushes her last supply down the toilet.) Marriage of Lies isn’t a great movie — it doesn’t even reach the quality level of some of the Lifetime social-comment movies like For the Life of a Child or Restless Virgins — but on its own terms it’s well made and well worth watching; the direction is finely honed and refreshingly gimmick-free, and the acting, particularly April Bowlby’s all-important performance as Rachel, is solidly professional and genuinely moving throughout.