The grief must have drained out of the families that lost loved ones at Bonford Coal Company’s mine disaster. Or else the locals, God-fearing Southerners along the West Virginia/Kentucky coal belt, have grown numb to this sort of loss. They’ve lived through “little accidents” before.
And then there’s the fear. Too much weeping, the wrong conversation with the press or a lawyer and the town’s sole big employer could up and close.
Shortcuts were taken and people died. No sense telling the Feds that. Everybody needs “to put food on the table.” That’s what they tell Amos, the lone survivor of the accident, a guarded, crippled young man compellingly played by Boyd Holbrook (Gone Girl, The Skeleton Twins). His friends and neighbors may slap Amos on the back and congratulate him on his survival. But he knows the subtext. The town’s survival is now in his hands, and he dare not become the “big shot that closes down Bonford Coal.”
Sara Colangelo’s coal country drama is about several “little accidents.” Owen, played by the wonderful Jacob Lofland of Mud, lost his dad in the mine. He doesn’t mean to kill the bossman’s bullying son (Travis Tope), even though most of the town secretly blames the kid’s dad (Josh Lucas) for a lot of deaths. Owen buries the boy’s body and orders his mentally challenged little brother (Beau Wright) to forget what he saw.
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Owen and Amos are both covering up accidents, not telling officials what they know. And both are drawn to the dead kid’s mom, played by Elizabeth Banks. She’s the one character in town to allow her grief to slip out, the one person to show remorse. She and her family are outsiders, and she fears her neighbors and feels guilt at what she suspects her husband’s role in all of this to have been.
Colangelo’s film gives us a world that feels lived-in, with nonactors mixed in with the professionals, and convincingly so. The coal dust that might have caused the mine explosion seems to cover the town and people in it in grit, and adds to their fatalism. Colangelo is sure-handed with scenes that depict a younger boy trying to fit in with older teens, behavior that we used to call “rite of passage” tests crosses over into bullying. She takes viewers into a Bible study meeting that serves as group therapy, into bars as dimly lit as the mines the men who frequent them work in.
But it’s a little unsettling, the lack of grief the players bring to this situation. Chloe Sevigny, as Owen’s widowed mom, and others never let us see them crack. And they should. Even Banks’ reactions to the disappearance of her son seem unnaturally muted.
The melodramatic turns the script takes — far-fetched relationships, a poker-faced kid doing chores for the mother of a guy whose death he caused — tend to take you out of the movie. With so much promise in the setting, the situation and the cast she signed to play her characters, it’s a pity Colangelo had to resort to soap opera. It scrubs the grit right off what could have been a fine film and a great showcase for Holbrook and Lofland, young actors on the rise.
Exclusive: The Texas Theatre, Dallas
Director: Sara Colangelo
Cast: Elizabeth Banks, Josh Lucas, Boyd Holbrook, Jacob Lofland
Rated: Unrated (violence, sexual situations, strong language)
Running time: 105 min.