Crime thrillers need to walk a fine line between keeping the viewer intrigued and not making the plot so convoluted to cause them to tune out. On the other hand, if things are too simple, the audience is frustrated because they are ten steps ahead of the characters in the film. That is not to say there is not a way to overcome one of these problems with snappy dialogue or crafty editing. Chris Zuhdi’s directorial debut, Goodnight, Charlene, layers deception on top of double-crosses to the point of tedium.
In the border town of Three Sands, Texas Charlie (Chris Zuhdi) is married to the unfaithful Charlene (Melanie San Millan). Charlene has fallen for bartender Billy (Daniel Ross Owens), who is unhappily married to Rebecca (Marissa Woolf), with whom he has a daughter. Charlene and Billy hatch a plan to remove the boring Charlie from the picture. They bring her uncle, Mayor Sam (Vernon Reeves) into the fold, to help hash out the details and enlist some professionals for the deed.
It is decided it would be best to cause an accident at the auto garage where Charlie works. However, the car that was rigged to fall on top of him misses. The owner, Mr. Flynn (Chris Messersmith), investigates the cause and realizes that it was the bolts were filed down to make the car crash to the floor. Deciding it would be best to fake Charlie’s death to coax out the people behind the hit.
“They bring her uncle, Mayor Sam…to help hash out the details and enlist some professionals for the deed.”
With the townsfolk all believing Charlie is dead, Charlene and Billy go about figuring out how to extort money from Mr. Flynn, under the guise of negligence in the workplace. However, the problem of Rebecca still exists, so Sam decides to fake Billy’s death and get the two lovers out of town after Charlie’s funeral. Mr. Flynn and Charlie have discovered who wanted him, so now he is out searching for Sam, Billy, and Charlene. Throw undercover FBI agents and corrupt cops into the mix, and things become a baffling amount of overbaked.
The biggest problem with the movie is Zuhdi’s screenplay. Starting with a narrator (we eventual learn that it is Mr. Flynn), the film talks about how ordinary Charlie is and how Charlene had her reasons for marrying the entirely normal man. However, aside from being exposition heavy, this does not add anything to the movie. Considering that the narration only comes back at the very end, it is awkward and gets in the way of character interaction. The pertinent information that is gleaned from this should have been a dialogue between characters, maybe Charlie and Mr. Flynn are chatting at work, and that is intercut with Billy and Charlene flirting at the bar at which he works.
As is, the narration tells who these people are and what they want. Charlene is manipulative from the start and undergoes no arc. Billy’s ending gives the hint of where that character might go after the credits roll, but not enough is known about why he strayed from his wife, to begin with for anything to be truly said one way or the other. Mr. Flynn likes Charlie and is well connected because he has money. Mayor Sam is corrupt and not above abusing his position of power. For the roughly 82 minutes of screentime, only Charlie has an arc of any kind.
However, the thin characters are not the only issue. The plot keeps adding deceptions on top of fake deaths, on top of big reveals for characters in a fruitless effort to become engrossing. It never gets there because most of these moments don’t add anything substantive to either the characters or the plot. They are merely twists for the sake of twists, which makes Goodnight, Charlene very difficult to get behind.
“…plot keeps adding deceptions on top of fake deaths…”
Which is a darn shame, as there is promise shown in the directing. Some roving shots are a bit jerky, but the cinematography is mostly good, though a few wide angle shots of characters look like a fish bowl. The lighting is also quite good, with several scenes giving off an impressive neo-noir vibe that adds to the sleazy underbelly of society the characters inhabit. For all the uselessness of the opening narration, the single lit neon beer sign is a striking image, and the slow pan towards the illuminated object takes on a surreal quality.
The acting is a very mixed bag. Zuhdi as the imperiled Charlie does a good job, bringing a vulnerability and everyman charm to the role. As Mr. Flynn, Messersmith brings a lot of life and bravado to the character whose only trait is helping Charlie. Mayor Sam is played by Vernon Reeves, who is slimy and easy to hate; so precisely what the character calls for. In her small role as Rebecca, Billy’s wife, Marissa Woolf conveys heartbreak and frustration that makes her one of the more rounded people in the film.
For all the bluster the narration makes of how slinky, mysterious, and intriguing Charlene is in the opening of the movie, none of that is apparent. While that is partially due to the writing, it’s also because of Millan’s bland performance. She fails to make an impression upon the audience of any kind, constantly just sitting there, blandly reciting her lines. Owens as Billy gets a few okay lines, but in the majority of his scenes, he sounds like he is always in a hurry. Having two of the main antagonists barely make a blip onscreen, especially two that should have electrifying chemistry to make sense of their desires and plan properly, really hurts the movie’s momentum.
Goodnight, Charlene is decently directed, beautifully lit, and most of the cast are do well all things considered. However, two of the leads are quite dull, the script is trying too hard to be duplicitous, and winds up going nowhere all that compelling.
Goodnight, Charlene (2019) Directed by Chris Zuhdi. Written by Chris Zuhdi. Starring Chris Zuhdi, Melanie San Millan, Daniel Ross Owens, Marissa Woolf, Chris Messersmith.
5 out of 10 Tumbleweeds