Samuel L. Jackson is Foley, an old grifter just out of the slam after doing 25 years on a murder rap. Determined to go straight, he becomes involved with a young woman half his age and begins to envision a happy, law-abiding life that could lie ahead of them. Then, as is always the case in this sort of by-the-numbers neo-noir, Foley's violent past comes calling, with inevitably unfortunate results.
Jackson, playing older and looking heavier than usual here, is impressively restrained—there's none of the glowering bluster for which he's best known—and he carries the opening passages of the film with a weary warmth. But as soon as he meets Iris (Ruth Negga)—a semi-prostitute with a heart of two-carat gold—the movie begins to sag. They have sex; they murmur and nuzzle, and we marvel at the improbability of their hookup.
Iris turns out to be in cahoots with Ethan (Luke Kirby), the slimy son of Foley's long-ago partner—the man he murdered 25 years earlier. Ethan has set up an $8-million grift involving a sleek mobster named Xavier (Tom Wilkinson), and he feels that Foley owes him. This particular con has a name—"The Samaritan"—and Ethan has the means to demand that Foley come in on it. Violent complications predictably multiply.
With Jackson resolutely underplaying, the movie is left to the ministrations of the other performers. Kirby is annoyingly mannered here, deploying a repertoire of pointless tics and over-calculated pauses; and Wilkinson demonstrates once again—as he did in Guy Ritchie's RocknRolla—that he's too classy and likable an actor to be entirely convincing as a vicious criminal. The picture's lone, glowing asset is Negga, an uncommonly appealing actress of Irish and Nigerian descent, who inflects the character of Iris with a barbed complexity beyond the schematic of the cliché script (co-written by director David Weaver).
Jackson was obviously committed to this Canadian project (he's one of the movie's 16 producers). But in hanging back with such unwavering determination, he's not able to inject much energy into the proceedings; and even the spirited Negga can't lift the picture out of its dull parboiled rut. The story has a requisite Big Twist, but it comes early on, and despite at least two other rich possibilities—involving Ethan and/or Iris—there are no further turnarounds to add interest as the movie slouches toward its soupy conclusion. Unsurprisingly, The Samaritan is already available for viewing on VOD. Even there, though, it may be overpriced.
Those who are long over the "found footage" style of supernatural thriller probably won't find much to refresh their interest here. Lovely Molly is a familiar haunted-house exercise that goes on at greater length than it should and, in the usual manner, isn't much to look at, either. It is kind of creepy, though—and bloody, there's that—and worth seeing for its young lead, Gretchen Lodge, who in her big-screen debut demonstrates a natural star presence.
The director, Eduardo Sánchez, has been little heard from since 1999, when he and film-school buddy Daniel Myrick whipped up The Blair Witch Project, a micro-budget movie that went on to gross $248-million worldwide. Sánchez has since made a few more pictures, none of them especially successful, and we can imagine his dismay in watching Oren Peli's three Paranormal Activity films—clear Blair Witch descendants—rake in more than half a billion dollars. Thus, perhaps, the director's return to the arena of his early breakthrough.
Lovely Molly doesn't adhere strictly to the genre template—there are the usual stretches of amateur video footage, with timecode clicking by at the bottom of the frame, and a brief bit of security-cam documentation (of a weird solo sex frenzy); but the story is held together in a traditional narrative POV frame. Molly (Lodge) and her husband Tim (Johnny Lewis, of Sons of Anarchy) are tight on money—he's a long-haul trucker, she's a janitorial drudge in a large office building. So they've moved into Molly's childhood home, a clapped-out wooden pile of the super-creaky variety, remotely located, of course, and filled, as we soon learn, with hideous memories. One night the couple's burglar alarm goes off. A cop is called, and a back door is found to be open—but there's no sign of forced entry. ("Probably just kids," the officer classically observes.) Even at this early point, only an infant could fail to get the picture.
It turns out that Molly is a former drug addict, and as the story's frights and terrors accumulate—mysterious lights, eerie sobbing, a sudden avalanche of dead deer (!)—her trusty syringe begins to beckon. Anyone familiar with Repulsion, the old Polanski film, will know where her mental disintegration must lead: before long the screwdrivers and baseball bats come out, and the cast begins to thin. Some of the violence is bracingly nasty—especially a startling, lip-ripping kiss—and it's certainly welcome: much of the time we're way ahead of what's happening onscreen, and we're beginning to doze.
But Lodge holds our attention, skillfully navigating her character's jagged facets: loving wife, scared little girl, and fearsome murder machine. It's a detailed performance that suggests a larger career in better films. Possibly soon.