I’m not sure who B.J. Smith is. At the start of this Texas thriller, there’s a baffling quote from this 18th century figure, the text mumbling something about dreadful darkness and gloomy flames. The press notes mention nothing about him. He’s probably as fictional as Tremo, Texas (a fictional barren backwater Dodge), where “Rushlights” ultimately lays down its twisted roots.
Inspired by true events, this second feature directed by photographer-artist turned filmmaker Antoni Stutz (also a producer and co-writer) was a slow time coming. Over a decade, in fact, since his debut with 2001’s “You’re Killing Me…,” a small, mostly unseen “Thelma & Louise” wannabe student film starring Julie Bowen and Traci Lords. The new film’s adequately grungy screenplay (by Stutz and Ashley Scott Meyers) drops well-placed hints and dialogue that well-worn thriller aficionados might spot as portentous omens connecting all the many bed sores in the cast. Stutz has crafted a decent thriller, actually. A lesser-man’s “Body Heat.”
It’s a grifter’s tale about a pair of lovers turned con artists, neophytes from Los Angeles who try to pull off an estate scam in the Lone Star state. Billy Brody (Josh Henderson, one of the leads in the new “Dallas” series) and Sarah Johnson (2009’s “The Final Destination”) are customer and ex-addict waitress, respectively, in a rinky-dink L.A. diner, exchanging small talk before hitting it off. A week later, after Sarah’s look-a-like roommate, Ellen, overdoses and the newly christened lovers split town for Lord knows what reason, she is masquerading as the dead roommate, whose recently demised and rich uncle has left her, his favorite niece and only living relative (probably not, just check ancestry.com, or think about where the other not-so-favorite niece and/or nephew might be), an inheritance. Their new center-of-the-rich-universe is a seemingly sleepy town, but there is a secret (or two or three) and foul play cradled in the blood-soaked nooks and gullies throughout the heat-soaked hillside.
The story allows the couple some ability to initially carry off the charade with local attorney Cameron Brogden (an excellent Aidan Quinn), but complications begin with the arrival of Ellen’s not-so-neighborly crazed drug dealer (Crispian Belfrage-—love the name!) from California, a nut job who inspires his own little crime wave. Top-billed Beau Bridges appears as Cameron’s older brother Bob a.k.a. Sheriff Robert Brogden, Jr., a 30-year down-to-earth veteran of the county police force. He might be in the middle of Texas, but he, and his deputy, Earl (played by the star’s mustachioed son, Jordan Bridges), smell something fishy. To say it mildly, there’s gonna be a lot of dead meat in the Tremo scum pond before the night is out.
The dusty sepia landscape is washed out (nice Super 35mm cinematography by Gregg Easterbook) and the score noirishly obvious by Jeffrey Coulter, accompanied by blues/rock songs by Sean Lane & The Hellhounds. After you’ve had a chance to digest the film, you might notice that it’s sprinkled with a little too much convenience that pushes the plot along. That cinematic “ugly past,” too, catches up with just about everyone in “Rushlights” as it twists and twists again to its gory end.