[Panic Fest 2021 Review] 'Below the Fold' is A Slow-Burn Mystery that Folds Under the Weight of Its Own Story
It would be more than fair to say that people, myself included, love crime stories—in particular those that involve grisly murders, outrageous circumstances, and mysterious disappearances...
...True crime documentaries, police procedurals, limited series based on true events, you name it, we love it. And the darker the better. When Netflix announced its plan to resurrect Unsolved Mysteries, I was flooded with a joy ordinarily reserved for the arrival of Chinese takeout and long-lost lovers returned from the sea.
Naturally, then, you can imagine my interest upon hearing the synopsis for writer/director Clayton Scott’s feature debut, Below the Fold, which just made its world premiere at this year’s Panic Fest. It opens with the disappearance of a young girl. Disappearance you say? Do go on…
And it does. Things start well enough: haunting, lingering shots of a house at night, the front door open, a plaintive phone off the hook, a cigarette smoldering in an ashtray. Frozen in time like the Mary Celeste or the colony at Roanoke, it begs, “What happened here?” You’d be forgiven for assuming that the remainder of the film’s 92-minute run time sets about answering that question, but…not so much.
Enter David (Davis DeRock), a small-town journalist assigned by his cantankerous editor Jason (Daniel Compo) to cover the anniversary of the infamous unsolved disappearance of twelve-year-old Susie Potter. As if dredging up the town’s dark past with its traumatized denizens weren’t enough, David is also tasked with helping the paper’s newest writer, Lisa (Sarah McGuire), settle in. Oh, did I forget to mention that David and Lisa have a past? Yeah, somewhere between colleagues and former lovers, their relationship ended with Lisa’s abrupt and unannounced departure.
Old tensions surface, both between the estranged duo and in their interactions with the town when Lisa talks her way into covering the disappearance. Despite the unresolved issues, the pair work well together. David’s tact and soft touch with the people of the town compliments Lisa’s direct and brash approach. The pair work in tandem and begin to uncover overlooked aspects of a similar case, a case that was too tidily wrapped up when pinned on a local sex offender. As the rabbit hole opens wider, suspects both believable and shocking surface and cover-of-night rendezvous with shadowy affiliates on both sides of the crime create even deeper forks in the road.
At a certain point, the duo, nearing their breaking points and flouting the confines of ethical journalism, finger a particularly juicy suspect. David, Lisa, and the audience are held balanced on a tight wire that ultimately proves to be nothing more than an old clothesline stretched across a convincing chalk drawing of two skyscrapers. A decent amount of care is taken to maintain the mood and tone, keeping the dread simmering just below the surface. It seems, however, no one remembered to come back into the kitchen and turn the heat up at the end to boil off that tension. And it’s a letdown.
The narrative beats and tone hearken back to some of the best in the investigative whodunnit subgenre, but all the punches are pulled, the denouement defanged. It proves an even bigger shame in the face of the clean and nuanced performance from DeRock and McGuire. Their chemistry, while strained, feels real; there’s a weight and an equal alacrity to their dynamic that works.
There’s a through line with the performances, the washed out and dreary aesthetic, and the cavernous echoing auditory landscape. It’s a well-oiled cooperation of craftsmanship that’s ultimately only stymied by its narrative.
This type of film relies heavily on either the ultimate catharsis of justice or the bleak and crushing clarity of hopelessness in the face of whatever system prevents justice from being served, be it law enforcement or cruel cosmic indifference. Somehow Below the Fold offers neither, or, perhaps more fairly, too little of either to really register.
With all the right elements in play, it’s a genuine disappointment to say that the journey doesn’t justify the destination. I’d love to have seen Below really play to the outer limits of its potential, but ultimately, we’re left with what we’re left with. Despite its pitfalls, what works works and it’s not altogether an unpromising debut for Scott as I’m still left interested in what he might do next. We’ll just have to wait and see.
By Paul Bauer