“Some things just can’t be undone,” says Leigh Tiller (Bethany Anne Lind), towards the end of Matthew Pope’s Blood On Her Name. She is talking about her particular, present predicament, but the problems in which she has become woefully entangled in fact began before – in some cases, long before – the start of the film. In the meantime, she has, in her efforts to break free, merely pulled the knots tighter around her. The result is both a super-taut thriller, and a tragedy (with all the sense of inevitability entailed by that genre).
The film begins with blood – a pool of it, welling around the body of a man lying dead on the floor of Leigh’s run-down car repair shop, as she stands by in shock. It will be a while before the full circumstances that led up to this scenario – both its older precursors and its more immediate precipitants – assume a narrative shape that the viewer can properly understand, but for now what we are witnessing is a woman in panic. Leigh dials ‘9’, then ‘1’, then hesitates and changes her mind. She sets about wrapping the body in plastic, and drives it to a lake to dump it – but when the man’s mobile phone goes off with a voicemail from his son, she changes her mind again, secretly placing the body in a shed by his house where his kin can find it, and perhaps also closure. The problem is, with so much criminality and blood to go around, there can be no closure – just more death, more guilt, more consequences pooling up. Leigh has made a grave mistake – but perhaps she never really had any choice.
Blood here also denotes family. Leigh is compromised and constrained by hers, which goes some way to explaining the inner conflict that caused her repeated changes of heart. Her young son Ryan (Jared Ivers) is on probation after a violent incident at school, and is one false move away from ending up in jail like his barely remembered father, imprisoned many years earlier for running stolen cars through the shop. Her semi-estranged father Richard (Will Patton) is a cop with his own bloody history – a history that still haunts Leigh from her childhood. Leigh carries the weight of all this heavily – and now, caught up in the spiralling ramifications of her own decisions, she wears her deep, deep guilt on her face. It is an extraordinary performance by Lind, physically embodying stress, trauma, pain and compunction – and all these are so clearly etched in her features and posture that others are easily able to read them there. Only Ray (Jimmy Gonzales), the mechanic whom Leigh has kept on since the days when her husband ran the shop, offers any kind of hope for the future. For he is a kind, generous man, and a good influence on Ryan. It may, however, be too late for Leigh, for whom every avenue of escape or redemption is closing fast.
As the screws tighten and the dead man’s girlfriend Dani (Elisabeth Röhm) and son Travis (Jack Andrews) circle for answers or worse, Blood On Her Name is awfully tense to sit through – but even more compelling is its nuanced approached to ethical questions. Leigh is all at once a person doing everything wrong, and a person unable to do otherwise. Here, being good and doing good do not help, and despite much noirish rain, blood is always thicker than water. This is a small-scale, small-town film, but smart writing and great acting magnify it to a grand morality drama that leaves its bloody traces on the mind. It is Pope’s feature debut as director and co-writer (with Don M. Thompson), but he has arrived fully-formed, deftly playing out his theological themes of sacrifice and salvation in a secular world.
© Anton Bitel