No story needs to be told in reverse, but there are a select few that benefit from it. Memento, for example, helps viewers understand and experience its protagonist’s anterograde amnesia through the convention. Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy, on the other hand, begins with its main character’s suicide, then moves backwards through the man’s life as a means of attempting to understand what brings someone to that point. This resonates since, in real life, a friend’s suicide often leaves behind more questions than it answers. Oren Uziel’s reverse plotting justifies itself in Shimmer Lake, a Netflix original film, but it bears no deeper thematic bent. Rather, it functions as a means of reshaping an otherwise rote piece of pulp storytelling.
After some establishing shots of the grey, rustic titular town, we stumble upon doughy, run-down Andy Sikes (Rainn Wilson), passed out in a basement we come to learn is his own. Upstairs his brother Zeke (Benjamin Walker), the town sheriff, sits with Andy’s family. It soon becomes clear that Andy is on the run, a sack of money in tow and a pile of bodies in his wake — a fun byproduct of the reverse narrative is that many of the film’s core characters are first met as corpses. What we’re seeing are the answers to the questions we typically ask in a film’s early going: Who wins? Who lives? Who loses? Who dies? And so on. The trick of telling a story in reverse is that the questions need to not only be more compelling than the answers, but must also change the fabric of those answers with each additional question mark.
As the story scales back, Shimmer Lake introduces its rogue’s gallery of supporting players. There’s meth-added Chris (Mark Rendall); hothead Ed (Wyatt Russell); Ed’s shifty-eyed wife Steph (Stephanie Sigman); a sputtering Judge and political hopeful (John Michael Higgins); excitable deputy Reed (Adam Pally); and a pair of dopey, ineffective FBI agents (Rob Corddry and Ron Livingston). The atmosphere and breadth of character is redolent of another modest tale of small-town subterfuge, 1998’s Clay Pigeons, but unlike that film, Shimmer Lake struggles with balancing its violence and pathos with a tone that veers too often into the kind of comedy that’s better suited to 22 Jump Street, which Uziel co-wrote.
It doesn’t help that the cast is frontloaded with comedy regulars. Wilson, Corddry, Higgins, and Pally are all fine performers — and often very funny here — but their presence is often dictated by a style of comedy that’s too broad for the authentic sense of place it seems Uziel is trying to cultivate. For example, Higgins is given a moment of heartrending despair that, while effectively conveyed, falls flat due mainly to the blue qualities that surround it (spoiler alert: it involves diarrhea). Wilson fares best, as his bug-eyed schlubiness lends itself to the character’s assured knowledge that he’s in over his head.
The film’s funniest moments are actually a result of the reverse storytelling. Toss-off lines from the first section are given context and greater dimension 10 or 20 minutes down the line, when the film reveals a joke like the cathartic pop of a Jack-in-the-Box. Uziel is also talented at forecasting some of the film’s twists in its earlier sections, doing so in a way that feels more intriguing than heavy-handed. In fact, Shimmer Lake’s climax does a fine job of bringing together its disparate parts for a resolution that’s surprising, effective, and logical.
Still, it didn’t need to be told in reverse, though it certainly makes the film more enjoyable. Because the story itself, while decently told, is rife with pulp cliches and archetypes, some of which veer close to stereotypical. Stories told in reverse tend to beg for repeat viewings, but considering there’s no grander thematic component to the convention, it’s likely Shimmer Lake will be a one-and-done for most.