Lifetime movies have an admirable economy of action. The twin constraints of budget and time force them into a predetermined box and yet, most of the movies I have profiled managed to pack in at least one subplot alongside the main one. Sadly, the budgetary concerns make that a pretty static box, since there’s no money for a big shootout, or a car chase, or a dinosaur, or even a dinner out at like an Olive Garden or something. There’s enough money for people having some intense conversations about family in the same three or four sets, and maybe some transition shots of the rainy streets of Vancouver. And that’s it.
On the subject of those conversations, family is the one universal theme in the Lifetime movies I’ve profiled thus far, and before anyone reads too much into that, this is only my seventh, and family is a pretty big theme in fiction at large. Just think of how many movies place a premium on their ragtag group of heroes creating a makeshift family. What is more remarkable about Lifetime movies, is that (in my limited experience) tend to be about the destruction of family rather than the creation of one. Today’s movie is 2007’s The Bad Son, and it once again plumbs the depths of the mom fears for which this network is infamous.
The movie just starts (there’s that economy) at a grainy crime scene “six years ago.” The shorthand director Neill Fearnley (every TV movie known to man) uses for flashbacks is a persistent grain, like he hired Abraham Zapruder to shoot this thing. The problem is that Vancouver (doubling here for Seattle, which is the least offensive place Vancouver can double for) is so rainy, it introduces a little bit of grain into scenes that aren’t supposed to have it. During one point, I thought the slight grain meant that the action took place a couple of hours in the past. Anyway, this crime scene is pretty horrific: a pretty young woman has been beaten, strangled, and her face was burned off with acid. Sadly, they didn’t get the excellent gore FX from Lizzie Borden, as we see the young woman, and she totally has a face.
Then it’s the present, and we introduce our heroine Ronnie McAdams, played by Catherine Dent of The Shield. She’s a freshly divorced single mom whose sixteen year old daughter just wants to move the fuck out. The age of consent in Washington State is sixteen — and you can thank Twilight for me knowing that — but does that mean it’s also the age of majority? Can’t Ronnie be like, “no, you can’t move in with your boyfriend Trey.” Also, she has a boyfriend Trey. This is the b-plot that’s meant to contrast with the main one: Ronnie’s family is falling apart in the beginning (due to, in a tossed off bit of dialogue that is the most Lifetimey thing ever, her man leaving her for a 24 year old bartender) but through perseverance and good sense, she can put it back together again. The girl has to get in trouble with the law first, but in the end, everything’s good.
Ronnie is a detective, and when she catches a disappearance, she gets drawn into a six year old murder case. The disappeared girl, Colleen Brennan was the wife of John Finn (Ben Cotton, best known to me as Pastor Mike on The Killing), and he was the prime suspect in two other murders. Finn loses more wives in the exact same way: beaten, strangled, burned with acid. They’re all the same type too, small-boned attractive redheads. And here’s the thing, Finn, redheads are a precious natural resource. I’ll thank you not to just go murdering them. Anyway, this seems like a pretty open-and-shut case. I mean, you can get away with murdering one wife, but three seems like it’s pushing it. The answer lies with Finn’s mom.
Frances Reynolds (Finn’s mom — her name comes from her second husband) is an old battle-axe who works as a civilian employee as the Supervisor for Central Communications for the Seattle PD. She knows police methods, and more importantly, she can bury damaging communiques. She’s been crushing the detective assigned to the case under harassment complaints and constantly feeds him and anyone else a series of false leads. When Ronnie catches the disappearing girl case, the department pairs her up with Mark “Rico” Petrocelli, this detective, to finally bring Finn down. There’s the obligatory “I don’t work with partners” scene that not even the actors seem engaged with.
The amazing thing about this movie is that there’s no twist. Not a one. What we think is happening in the beginning is exactly what turns out to be happening in the end. Finn falls in love with a young woman — a little too young, but that’s those Cullen-friendly laws for you — gets frustrated with her, and in a fit of rage, murders her. Then his mom sweeps in with the disposal and stymies the investigation. Boom. That’s it. And it takes the movie 88 minutes to get there. Ronnie and Rico just follow Finn around, worried that he’s repeating the cycle with yet another pretty young redhead and hope they can save this one’s life. They finally get him on the murders when they flip his uncle Jerry.
And that’s what this movie is really about. On the outside, you have the stereotypical thing that a hypothetical Lifetime viewer might want: a doting son extremely close to his strong-willed mother. But on the inside, there’s serious rot. Their relationship, even without the murder and corpse-mutilation, is portrayed as creepy. It’s not as creepy as it maybe should have been, but the delivery of certain lines (“No one will ever love you like I do”) hints at some Oedipal undertones. Uncle Jerry is relentlessly abused both by mom and Finn, and he’s the crack that allows the police to get in. It’s the contrast illuminated by Ronnie’s own problem, an inverted arc of families. That’s not to say it was good or especially interesting, but it was there.
After the much-grittier Playdate, Lizzie Borden, and An Amish Murder, The Bad Son was very dry and inert. I’m wondering if this was because it was five years earlier, and the network has since warmed up to gore. The movie was in desperate need of some kind of twist — making Jerry the killer would have been good for starters — to break up the monotony of two cops going after the obviously guilty man from the beginning. Oh well. It’s a Lifetime movie. I should really expect less.