It feels like they’re going for a Shakespeare in Tennessee by way of Douglas Sirk vibe in the overwrought tragedy “The Violent Heart,” and while the intentions most certainly are noble, the end result is a convoluted mess with one Big Reveal we can see coming 45 minutes in advance and a second Even Bigger Reveal that comes across as arbitrary and borderline desperate.
By that late point, our emotional investment in these often thinly drawn characters has plummeted like GameStop stock.
Writer-director Kerem Sanga has a knack for delivering arresting, noir-like visuals, especially from medium- and long-shot distance, and the talented cast gamely tries to sell the material, but “The Violent Heart” is so muddled there are times we have to remind ourselves of the connection between certain characters, and the histrionics so over the top we’re hoping everyone will just take a deep breath and CALM THE HECK DOWN.
Our story begins with an extended prologue in which 9-year-old Daniel (Jordan Preston Carter), who idolizes his teenage sister Wendy (Rayven Symone Ferrell), gets on his motorbike and follows Wendy after she sneaks out of the house in the middle of the night, suitcase in hand, to meet up with a man — a man who shoots her in the woods as a horrified Daniel looks on. (We do not see the stranger, but we have the sneaking suspicion he’ll resurface sometime later in the story. Well, it’s not really a suspicion; it’s pretty obvious he WILL resurface.)
Cut to 15 years later, where the 24-year-old Daniel (now played by Jovan Adepo of “Watchmen”) is working at an oil change/repair shop after having served time for a violent incident when he was in high school. When a local, 18-year-old high school senior named Cassie (Grace Van Patten) stops in to get the oil changed on her father’s car, what starts off as an awkward, halting friendship eventually blossoms into romance. The Daniel/Cassie affair feels utterly inauthentic — not because Daniel is Black and Cassie is Caucasian, not because of the age difference, but because the two actors, try as they might, are tepid at best together. (This isn’t entirely their fault, as the screenplay gives Daniel just a few notes to play — mostly variations on anger — while Cassie is little more than a cipher.)
Mary J. Blige gives the most heartfelt and resonant performance in the film as Daniel’s mother, who seems to favor the troubled Daniel over Daniel’s much younger, model student brother (Jahi Di’Allo Winston). Lukas Haas plays Cassie’s father, Joseph, a hipster English teacher at Cassie’s school who has his daughter in his class, which seems problematic, and has lunch with her every day in the cafeteria, which seems kinda sad for Cassie. Haas does a nice job of infusing Joseph with a core of creepiness coated in a veneer of laid-back charm. Meanwhile, Kimberly Williams-Paisley as Cassie’s mother lurks on the sidelines for much of the movie, waiting for her big moment — a moment that when it finally arrives seems borderline ridiculous, like just about every late development in this blood-soaked melodrama.