Film noir specializes in depictions of the slow and seamless suffocation of human life. The victims: morally corrupt archetypes tormented and transfixed by the inevitability of their own demise. Simply put, these characters are the walking dead of cinema. Every breath they take spells finality, their every action a tightening of a vice. As if to jarringly reference this classic genre structure, Amy Seimetz's harrowing feature debut, Sun Don't Shine, begins with a hysterical young woman suddenly rising into frame and gasping for air.
The wheezing femme is Crystal (Kate Lyn Sheil), a flimsy waif knee-deep in a messy fisticuffs with her lover, Leo (Kentucker Audley). She seems to be more possessed than angry, and the stiflingly hot backwoods-Florida setting makes their violent tussle seem all the more primitive. The two roll around in mud and puddles like enraged animals, yelling at each other over some unknown reason. While the motivation for the brawl remains somewhat obscure, the characters' weathered facial expressions suggest that whatever caused the disagreement is potentially damning. This ambiguity sets a beguiling tone that's only amplified by the messy handheld aesthetic and the humid atmosphere.
After the initial throw-down, it quickly becomes clear that Crystal and Leo are engaged in a desperate attempt to dump a dead body and establish separate alibis in the process. The shady scenario creates a tense emotional landscape that consistently pits the two leads against each other and unsuspecting civilians who become embroiled in their plot by chance. One anxious sequence finds the couple on the side of the highway waiting for their overheated car to cool down. When a good samaritan stops and insists on helping, Leo unsuccessfully tries to talk his way out of the situation. Finally, after the passerby begins to share a strange story about a dog trapped inside a hot car, Leo gets fed up with the niceties and shoots the verbose man a razor-sharp death glare. Sun Don't Shine specializes in that brand of unspoken threat.
Stylistic echoes of Terrence Malick's Badlands can be found in the fluttering xylophone score and the languishing tenor of the characters' wispy dialogue. Yet Seimetz doesn't envision her protagonists as psychopathic killers or lyrical ciphers; Crystal and Leo are terribly misguided but relatively sane people linked only by their mutual hysteria. They have dreams for the future, even if there's no way for their fantasies to come true. (Crystal often speaks of sharing a house with Leo and her daughter, the trio existing in a perfectly realized state of domestication.) Interestingly, the only residence they visit is owned by a bar floozy who becomes a key figure in Leo's alibi plan. As Crystal tries on the woman's slinky clothes and rummages through her tacky belongings, she appears confused and angered, finally enraging Leo to the point where he once again acts out violently (this time sexually). The very space that should represent comfort feels entirely alien and even causes further trauma.
In keeping with noir tradition, Sun Don't Shine slithers along toward a fatalistic conclusion of double crosses and epic fails set in the deep swamps of the Everglades. Except Seimetz sees such plot beats as secondary to the overall mood of the film. It's not about what these characters are doing or even why, but the forlorn and asphyxiating vibe of their very existence, the way their physical appearance reflects the film's overarching theme of emotional and physical panic. Dampness weighs down Crystals matted hair throughout, while sweat often rests heavily on Leo's brow, both a product of an unflinching sun that won't quit beating down on them. Unlike most modern noir films, Seimetz's intoxicating slice of genre revisionism earns its "neo" prefix, envisioning a brightly sinister world where desperation is the new normal.