Good movies can get away with murder, while bad movies can’t get away with anything. Classic Hollywood melodramas — often soldered together by strained coincidences and Shakespearian twists of fate — depended on that eternal truth of high-key storytelling almost as much as they did on the celluloid required to shoot them. Douglas Sirk and George Stevens linger in the collective imagination because they knew how to swing for the fences without making audiences cry foul.
Director Kerem Sanga may not be working at quite the same level, but his stirring new film pays effective tribute to the likes of “Magnificent Obsession” and “A Place in the Sun” through its vivid self-belief that audiences will buy anything so long as they get enough bang for their buck.
For the majority of its running time, “The Violent Heart” appears to have more in common with the sullen indie romances of today than it does with the star-crossed theatrics of yesteryear. Set in the rolling nowhere of rural Tennessee, Sanga’s twinkling Southern tragedy — his first movie since 2016’s excellent “First Girl I Loved” — gives us a teenage girl with the world at her feet, an older boy with a lifetime of pain over his shoulder, and a synth-driven John Swihart score that swirls around them like a funnel of windswept leaves whenever they hold each other close enough to get hurt. She’s a white high school senior and he’s a Black 24-year-old ex-con working as a mechanic at the only place in town that will hire him, but those aren’t the differences that ultimately threaten to tear them apart.
No, there’s something bigger than the both of them percolating under the surface here, and the full truth of it — obvious in parts, but layered with implications that don’t totally reveal themselves until the waning moments — is so hard to swallow that most films would surely choke on it. If this one still bites off more than it can chew, its ambition nevertheless reaffirms Sanga as a skilled and emotionally sensitive filmmaker who’s attuned to the low-frequency wavelengths that tend to get flattened out by stories with this kind of sweep. He listens for the quiet echoes that ripple out from even the most explosive moments, and that’s never been easier to appreciate than it is during the nuclear fallout that detonates at the end of his latest film.
“The Violent Heart” is a good movie; one that gets away with several murders even when its characters are gripped by them for decades on end. It starts with a brutal one that will linger in the background for a while to come. A nine-year-old kid named Daniel follows his teen sister out into the woods one night, and watches from a distance as the obscured person she was meeting there shoots her dead. Cut to 15 years later, when Daniel (Jovan Adepo) is trying to keep his residual anger over his sister’s killing at bay. Quiet and clenched and eager to follow his father into the Marines, he seems to be doing a pretty good job of it, but a jail stint on his record suggests that hasn’t always been the case.
For reasons that aren’t entirely satisfying, Sanga makes Daniel a supporting character in the present-day part of the story. His lead: A bright and beaming high school senior named Cassie (Grace Van Patten), who seems to willfully reject the popularity that she ought to own like a birthright. Her dad Joseph (Lukas Haas) is also her English teacher — not as awkward as you’d think, she swears — and Cassie would rather have lunch with him in the cafeteria than any of the kids her own age. She meets Daniel by chance when she drops by his auto-shop one day, and wins him over through sheer force of will. Cassie is the nicest possible version of this character (earnest to a fault, as “The Violent Heart” struggles to liberate her from the basic function she has to play in this story), but Daniel has several good reasons to be reluctant about all this.
Sanga doesn’t really dwell on any of them, and yet the most textured moments between these characters dig at a one-sided disconnect between Daniel’s layered trauma and Cassie’s wide-eyed naiveté. He understands how the world works, and there are several brilliantly sketched beats where you can feel him wince at the recognition that his new teenage girlfriend doesn’t. The age gap reverberates in a different way between Daniel and his much-younger brother (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), who misinterprets his own family because he wasn’t alive to see it fall apart. His relationship with their mom (an excellent Mary J. Blige, who features in all of the film’s most crucial scenes and textures every line with hard-won understanding) is particularly loaded. Blige, in her first dramatic film role since “Mudbound,” once again takes a fairly small part and magnifies its significance so well that it ties the whole movie together.
“The Violent Heart” tells the kind of story that needs to seem written in the stars, and the muted chemistry between Cassie and Daniel keeps things from pumping with the force required to feel inexorable. Adepo’s implosive performance is arresting even when he’s trying to find a way for Daniel to slip out of this entire situation, and Van Patten — a singular talent who’s been one role away from going supernova ever since “Tramps” — finds hidden depths to Cassie that don’t get a chance to surface on their own (it feels like the lovers talk more via text than they do in person).
Sanga moves these people around the board like chess pieces who are oblivious to the gambit that’s being orchestrated around them, and the under-developed aspects of “The Violent Heart” often leave the impression of a film that was reverse-engineered from its shattering endgame. For all of its overtures of forbidden romance, “The Violent Heart” uses its love story as a muscle more than anything else, flexing around Daniel and Cassie’s potential future together until it feels strong enough to lift a weighty meditation on the way that we live with our anger.
Daniel’s rage has been welling inside of him since the fateful night of his sister’s murder, while Cassie’s only starts to seep in through a sudden crack in the hull after school one day. Sanga’s film is gripping for how it uses old scars to expose the pain of fresh wounds and vice-versa, and swirls complex weather systems of inherited and/or systemic violence into white squalls of new wrath. Daniel has been living with his anger for long enough to name his demons, and the context he provides for that tricky balancing act (“you start to not even notice it… you kind of just become an angry person”) frames the back half of this story with such bone-deep emotional force that it’s easy to forgive “The Violent Heart” for its occasional shortcuts and overarching contrivances.
Easier still because Sanga doesn’t play the reveals for shock value so much as inevitability, and his biggest bombshells are only as powerful as their aftershocks. The result is a shoot-the-moon melodrama grounded in the cold reality that anger comes for us all in one form or another, and that love is just another word for the room we make for it in our lives. It’s thanks to its most implausible moments that “The Violent Heart” beats true.
Gravitas Ventures will release “The Violent Heart” on VOD on Friday, February 19.