The grimy blue-collar crime thriller “Ida Red” opens with a stylishly filmed late night heist. Josh Hartnett and Frank Grillo masquerading as DEA agents pull over an 18-wheeler under the guise of a “routine” traffic stop. But as often happens in movies like this, things gets messy and (especially in this case) the ramifications of the botched job prove serious. It sets off an ugly domino effect that propels this gritty and tightly-made indie.
The story is set in Oklahoma and takes place sometimes in 2010. Hartnett plays Wyatt Walker, a mechanic at an auto dealership by day and an armed robber by night. He’s part of a notorious family of criminals led by his mother, the family matriarch, Ida “Red” Walker (an appropriately scary Melissa Leo). She’s serving 25 years in prison but still calls the shots. She’s also terminally ill. “Don’t let me die in here,” she makes Wyatt pledge.
Grillo is delightfully unhinged playing Wyatt’s sociopathic uncle Dallas. He’s the family member who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty when needed, and as one particularly unsettling scene shows us, he seems to enjoy it. Dallas is the brother of Wyatt’s father who was killed during an attempted bank robbery, the same job which put Ida in prison. Now Wyatt and Dallas are left to do the legwork while the sickly Ida tries to keep things running smoothly from behind bars.
The one kink in the Walker outfit is Wyatt’s sister and Ida’s estranged daughter Jeanie (Deborah Ann Wolf). She and her lawman husband Bodie (George Carroll) disapprove of the family’s criminal enterprise which has led to some sizable brother/sister tension. To throw more gas on the already flammable situation, Jeanie’s 15-year-old delinquent daughter Darla (Sofia Hublitz) looks up to Wyatt.
Written and directed by John Swab, “Ida Red” revolves aroun a fairly basic central storyline. It’s pretty simple and it’s nothing we haven’t seen several times before. What separates it is the interest Swab has in his characters. More that just a crime story, Swab is far more intrigued by who these people are and the dynamic between them. By honing in on the many complicated relationships, Swab is able to dig into a number of compelling themes. Bloodlines, generations, and breaking destructive family cycles.
That last one really comes through in Darla’s character. “Why do you do it?” she asks Wyatt concerning his life of crime. “It’s in our blood,” he solemnly replies. In many ways her story is the film’s moral centerpiece. She’s at a crossroads and the two paths she has in front of her lead in dramatically different life-effecting directions. Does she follow her uncles who love and protect her but are on a path full of violence? Or does she set off down her own path – one that gives her a chance at hope and happiness?
The heat turns up a notch when Bodie and FBI Agent Lawrence Twilley (William Forsythe) get a sniff that puts them on Wyatt’s trail. It leads to the proverbial “one more job and we’re done” which never quite goes as planned. Along the way Swab works up some pretty good tension and the handful of action scenes (most notably a “Heat” inspired downtown shootout) are plenty fierce. There are a few odd touches as well (I’m still trying make sense of the weird Madonna “Crazy for You” needle drop during a police interrogation room).
“Ida Red” doesn’t always seem sure of itself or of the best way to get to its fairly predictable end. But John Swab does a good job building a family dynamic that’s both interesting and believable. The setting works well and the performances manage the tricky job of conveying both menace and empathy. Overall, the movie might not be anything new or unique, but it does have the kick you look for in crime thrillers of this kind. “Ida Red” releases November 5th in select theaters and on VOD.