The Scent of Rain and Lightning: Slow-burn Thriller Strikes All the Right Notes

By Liam Lacey

Rating: A-

There’s an astute directorial presence behind the Scent of Rain and Thunder, a modern-day western noir, based on the 2010 novel by Kansas writer Nancy Pickard, here transferred to rural Oklahoma. 

The director is Blake Robbins, a veteran television and film character actor (The Office, Sons of Anarchy) who brings together the elements of story, performance, and visual style in this film of a dynastic family with a scandalous secret in its past.  

 A scene from Scent of Rain and Lightning.

A scene from Scent of Rain and Lightning.

Not particularly original, the film conforms to the stylized naturalism of a number of recent American indie films (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Blue Ruin, the Netflix series Bloodlines.)  The world is predominantly masculine, built around a western/southern honour code and enforced by violence. Count on dark lighting, lot of beards and hats and some mumbled dialogue, leading to some sacrifice of clarity in the service of regional texture.

The main innovation in the Scent of Rain and Lightning is its screenplay by Jeff Robinson and Casey Twenter, which jumps back and forth without warning between two time frames. Though the double time-line can be confusing, it provides a welcome immediacy to both periods, which converge with a satisfying symmetry.

At the centre of the film is a present-day young woman, Jody Linder (Maika Monroe) who is trying to solve the mystery of her parents’ murder a dozen years before, when she was a child. 

The interwoven story in the past traces the events leading up to the murder of Jody’s parents (Maggie Grace and Justin Chatwin), and involve enough drinking, betrayal and truck driving for a country music box set. Thematically, both periods are linked by a violent masculine code of control and silence which Jody must break.

The movie begins with the arrival of Jody’s grandfather (Will Patton) and two uncles, Chase (Mark Webber) and Meryl (Aaron Poole), to tell her that the man convicted of the crimes, local low-life Billy (Brad Carter) is released from jail because of new exculpating evidence from the man’s sympathetic son, Colin (Logan Miller).  

The Linder family men are afraid Billy will be out for vengeance and want Jody to move to her grandparents’ ranch to be under their protection. Instead of following their advice, Jody heads directly over to the man’s house and confronts him, where he violently threatens her. But Jody begins asking questions about the crime and trial. 

The film gives us little information about Jody’s life (the book fills in a lot of details about her work as a teacher and amateur archaeologist) but Monroe, who starred in David Robert Mitchell’s superb horror film, It Follows, has loads of presence and a hard-staring defiance to make the powerful squirm.  While Monroe’s tough-girl performance is the connecting thread, the film is an ensemble piece, with a dozen actors making the most of their screen time, including veterans Patton and Bonnie Bedelia as Jody’s grandparents.

The storytelling is greatly helped by the plaintive musical score courtesy former members of the indie Philadelphia band East Hundred and by Lyn Moncrief’s handheld, impressionistic camerawork.  Dialogue is frequently dropped entirely, with the sound mix and music accompanying visual montages, freeing the movie from a reliance on exposition, to tell its familiar story in a fresh way.

The Scent of Rain and Lightning. Directed by Blake Robbins. Written by Jeff Robinson and Casey Twenter, based on the novel by Nancy Pickard. Starring Maika Monroe, Will Patton, Maggie Grace, Justin Chatwin, Aaron Poole, Mark Webber and Bonnie Bedelia. Opens April 20 in limited release including Toronto’s Imagine Cinemas - Carlton Cinema.