Review by Daniel Lima
Rumble Through the Dark has all the telltale signs of a dud: directors with a rich and well-connected parent (Graham and Parker Phillips with their sophomore film), one of whom is an established actor; a dour, self-serious tone over a nearly two-hour runtime; and a faded star who has seen better days in the lead role. Yet while the film is not quite a rousing success, there is an authorial voice, and the film accomplishes far more than what one would expect at first glance.
Aaron Eckhart plays a washed-up bare knuckle fighter, so awash in debts and bills that it seems like he won’t be able to move his mother back to her house from the hospital before it is foreclosed on. Just when it looks like he’s about to make good on his promise to her, opportunity is snatched from his grasp, forcing him to go to any length to make his money back.
The backdrop is the Mississippi Delta, and the film does an exceptional job fleshing out this underworld filled with desperate, despondent people eking out a meager existence. From a dingy hole-in-the-wall bar, to the faded glamour of an antebellum home, to the nightmarish, bloodthirsty atmosphere of a fighting pit, every location has a grimy and rundown texture. Every character feels like the protagonist of another story, of which this one is merely an intersection. The script is an adaptation of a novel written by the screenwriter, and it’s clear that much care was taken to bring in as much detail from the book as possible.
With such a broad and wide-spanning narrative, the performances of the ensemble are particularly important. Fortunately, the cast sells every nuance and idiosyncrasy of these characters. Aaron Eckhart commits himself entirely to the role of a damaged man seeking to make good on past mistakes, once again forcing the audience to ask why he has been relegated to starring in direct-to-video work from novice filmmakers. Marianne Jean-Baptiste is the scene-stealer of the supporting cast, playing a crime boss with pitch perfect menace and charisma, but even characters who appear for only a scene manage to make an impression. The one weak link is Bella Thorne as a carnival worker dreaming of a more meaningful life, and even she is simply serviceable.
Unfortunately, Rumble Through the Dark is more than just a crime drama about a colorful society of outcasts and misfits. Weighing down the movie is an anemic, trite, and hackneyed narrative thread about Eckhart’s past, and a potential relationship with another character. Clearly, the intent is to provide more shading and nuance to his personality, to show how he became the man he is. That process is far less interesting than just watching the man he is today, and allowing Eckhart’s performance to convey the life he’s led just from how he carries himself.
That means whenever the film goes through a lengthy flashback, or dream sequences, or overly saccharine dialogue about fate, all the momentum and atmosphere that had been developed evaporates. The strongest part of the film is put on hold, and the audience is forced to endure a wildly ineffective tonal shift. Staying immersed in the worldview of these characters could have made for an incredibly affecting finale. By the time you actually get there, it’s exhausting.
It’s a shame that this one crucial misstep hobbles Rumble Through the Dark so much. In spite of all the careful world-building, all the layered performances, the film ends up feeling less substantial than the sum of its parts, precisely because it constantly undermines its own strengths. Even so, this is far better than one would expect, and hints at greater things from the Phillips brothers.
Rumble Through the Dark hits theaters November 3 and VOD on November 10.