Meskada is a murder mystery told in a direct, straightforward fashion and plotted on a modest scale, but it’s also unexpectedly ambitious, turning a corner around the halfway point that takes the narrative in a direction that moves this away from a typical police procedural and into something with a potent political and sociological subtext. Writer and director Josh Sternfeld knows what to do with his actors and he has a keen sense of mood and atmosphere, but he’s not quite so good at shifting gears when the picture takes a detour into something deeper.
In Meskada, Nick Stahl stars as Noah Cordin, a police detective who lives and works in Hilliard, a prosperous suburban community. When a burglary leads to the murder of a young boy, Noah is assigned to the case, along with a detective from the county sheriff’s office, Leslie Spencer (Rachel Nichols). The victim’s mother, Allison Connor (Laura Benanti), is a wealthy widow and a local politician with a certain amount of influence as a member of the Meskada County Board of Commissioners. Allison is deeply distraught after the death of her son, and Noah and Leslie are under pressure to find the killers as soon as possible. A clue uncovered by Noah leads him in the direction of Caswell, a nearby town also in Meskada County where Noah was born and raised. While Hilliard is a well-to-do white-collar suburb, Caswell is a blue-collar town that’s fallen on hard times since their biggest employer, a plastics plant, shut down. Noah’s homecoming is a bittersweet experience, especially since he has plenty of hunches but few firm leads. As it turns out, Noah is headed in the right direction -- the boy was killed during a break-in committed by two young locals down on their luck, Eddie (Kellan Lutz) and Shane (Jonathan Tucker). But while Noah’s investigation is progressing slowly, Allison wants swift justice, and when she learns that the investigation is leading to suspects in Caswell, she uses her influence to in effect punish the town -- a pharmaceutical firm is planning to open a facility in Caswell, but Allison uses her influence to scuttle the deal, much to the anger of the people of Caswell. Soon Noah finds himself caught between his desire to solve the case, the demands of the people of Hilliard who want the killer put behind bars, and the hatred of his old friends in Caswell, angry that their town’s last hope of economic survival is being sacrificed for one woman’s sense of justice.
In its first half, Meskada is a simple but well-crafted detective story that digs deep into the workings of the crime, the details of the investigation, and the hard facts of life in Caswell, where folks are struggling to stay afloat as the city sinks deeper into the red. Director Josh Sternfeld lets the story follow its own pace, but it flows smoothly and feels natural, especially as it follows the lives of the criminals and their families. However, just as Noah is starting to get close to tracking down the killers (whose identity is known to the audience at the outset), Sternfeld throws in the angle of Allison Connor deciding the whole of Caswell is to blame and will be held responsible until the killer is brought in. Not only doesn’t it fit with the tone of the first half off the film, Allison’s actions don’t seem terribly rational regardless of her grief, and it’s hard to imagine that the rest of Meskada’s commissioners would fall in line so quickly behind what’s clearly a petty knee-jerk reaction. In one sense, this is consistent with the rest of the film -- Sternfeld is clearly more comfortable with his characters in Caswell than Hilliard -- but that’s not to say it works in context, and ultimately it hobbles a film that starts with promise.
Sternfeld also runs hot and cold with his cast. Nick Stahl is strong and solid as the detective caught in the center of conflicting emotions, Jonathan Tucker is at once weaselly and sympathetic as a small-time crook trapped in something bigger than he expected, and Grace Gummer is effective in a small role as a barmaid in love with one of the killers, but Rachel Nichols doesn’t do much to enliven her thankless role as Noah’s sidekick and Kellan Lutz seems more like a varsity football captain gone to seed than a working-class criminal.
Meskada feels like two stories that have been grafted into a single film -- a murder mystery and a study of a town brought down by the recession in post-industrial America. Either narrative had the potential to be something worthwhile, but bolted together they drag each other down rather than adding up to a satisfying whole.
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- Released: 2010
- Rating: R
- Review: Meskada is a murder mystery told in a direct, straightforward fashion and plotted on a modest scale, but it’s also unexpectedly ambitious, turning a corner around the halfway point that takes the narrative in a direction that moves this away from a typical… (more)