Sunday, July 10, 2016

Hidden Truth (Cartel Pictures, Marvista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2016)

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

Last night Lifetime showed the “world premiere” of a surprisingly good thriller called Hidden Truth, set in the small mountain community of Mammoth Lakes, California (though despite the plural name it seems to have only one lake) and starting with one of Lifetime’s familiar teaser scenes: a young woman is bound by an assailant who hits her on the forehead with a large rock, then wraps her up and takes her out in a rowboat to the middle of the lake, where he drops her overboard with an anchor chained to her leg so even if she survived the clout from the rock, she’ll sink and drown. Then there’s a title reading “Two Days Earlier,” and it turns out that two days earlier Zoë Nevin (Diana Hopper) had just about saved up enough money to escape Mammoth Lakes and move to Los Angeles. She’s got the money in the first place by being in a sleazy relationship with the owner of the resort which seems to give Mammoth Lakes whatever economy it has — we don’t even see a grocery store or a gas station even though it’s obvious the Mammoth Lakians have to have some way of fueling both themselves and their vehicles. The only other business we see is “Pace’s Auto and Boat Repair,” a sort of outdoor garage run by Pace Nevin (Brendan McCarthy), Zoë’s father, a recovering alcoholic who was still drinking a year earlier when his wife Layla (played by Heidi Fialek in a flashback even though she’s been dead a year at the start of the story) ran away from him at a bar and ended up, you guessed it, hit by a rock and drowned in the middle of the lake. The local sheriff, Underwood (yet another seedy-law-enforcement-officer-in-a-small-town role by former Hardy Boy Parker Stevenson), and his deputy, Simons (Evan Scott Wood), are both convinced Pace Nevin murdered his wife, and when (after another title, reading “Two Days Later, takes us back to the story’s present) Zoë’s body is found in the lake, hit with a rock and then drowned just like her mom was a year before. Bumbling cops Underwood and Simons, showing a degree of stick-to-it-iveness towards the wrong conclusion that makes Inspectors Lestrade and Gregson seem like models of open-mindedness by comparison, are so convinced Pace Nevin is guilty of this crime, too — they assume Zoë caught him in the act of killing her mom and so he killed her to shut her up (a year later?) — they utterly refuse to consider any other possibilities.

The actual lead character is Zoë’s aunt Jamie (Sarah Lind), who took over raising Zoë after Layla was murdered while Pace stepped back from the family to sober up, and it doesn’t take her long before she turns up another suspect: Michael Evans (Shawn Christian), the resort owner, who had paid Zoë the money she’d been saving for her escape. As a 16-year-old she had worked at the resort for a few months but Michael apparently decided he couldn’t resist her sexually, so he paid her for sex and possibly some other, even sleazier things as well — about two-thirds of the way through we learn that though Michael’s resort is ostensibly a respectable establishment, there’s an ongoing drug supermarket behind its back wall, and it’s hinted that among the foul things Michael had Zoë doing for him is dealing drugs as well as letting him fuck her. In the teaser we already learned that she was only going to have sex with him one more time and then was going to take the money and get out of town, and when he insists she’ll keep working for him, she points out it’s her 17th birthday and if he gives her any trouble she’ll report him to the cops for having sex with an underage girl. That seems to be what drove him off the deep end and led him to kill her after she tried to flee through the woods surrounding the lake and he managed to catch her. Jamie collects more and more evidence implicating Michael in the murder of her daughter, including finding a wishbone-shaped charm from a bracelet Zoë was given for her birthday, but the sheriffs refuse to consider it — though a third person in the sheriff’s office helps her by supplying her a printout documenting that Michael owns the land from which he rowed the boats to the middle of the lake to drown both Layla and Zoë. Meanwhile, in order to make his frame complete, Michael steals a coffee cup from Pace’s car (Pace is so easygoing he not only parks his car outside his business but leaves it unlocked) and plants it in one of the rowboats, thereby leading Underwood and Simons to arrest him — only Jamie knows the cup wasn’t there earlier because she had already searched the rowboats herself. Eventually Michael decides he’s going to have to eliminate Jamie as well, but the cops finally catch on and arrest him just in time, while his wife Veronique (Jessica Morris), who was willing to lie for him earlier on, turns state’s evidence against him.

Effectively and suspensefully directed by Steven R. Monroe from a well-constructed script by Richard O. Lowry (even though I think Lowry made a mistake by giving the two sets of characters such similar last names — it took me a while to realize that the good guys were named “Nevin” and the bad guy “Evans”), Hidden Truth isn’t a great film but it’s Lifetime at close to its best: Lowry avoids the absurd melodramatics of other Lifetime writers and Monroe trusts the script enough to tell it in a straightforward manner free of visual or editing tricks. The cast is also quite fine: Sarah Lind is solid in the role of the “sleuth” character, unable to believe her brother could have committed such crimes and determined to avenge her niece by finding the real killer; Brendan McCarthy is properly air-headed as the brother who seems more overwhelmed than anything else by being falsely accused of murder and having that accusation hang over his head for a year in a typical movie small town where everybody knows everybody else’s business; and Shawn Christian nails both the superficial charm of his character (one reason the sheriff and his deputy are so sure he didn’t do it is he’s such a respected and influential citizens in the town, the closest thing Mammoth Lakes has to a 1-percenter) and the depravity beneath without resorting to the scenery-chewing other actors have done as Lifetime villains. It also helps that he’s decent-looking but not drop-dead gorgeous — one of the most monotonous Lifetime affectations is the insistence of their casting directors that virtually every hot-looking male in their casts must be a black-hearted villain!