Even before Bonnie & Clyde, the outlaw-couple on-the-run has long been the favorite subject for talented filmmakers to try something new. Fritz Lang provided an early example with You Only Live Once Nicolas Ray had They Live By Night, and Godard used the template to create a revolution with Breathless. Penn’s film ushered in the era of New Hollywood filmmaking, and directors as disparate as Spielberg (The Sugarland Express), Malick (Badlands) and Altman (Thieves Like Us) had their own take on the genre that was picked up by the likes of Tony Scott and Oliver Stone. Since the mid ‘90s, the criminal road-trip has been in a bit of a lull, but Amy Seimetz has revitalized it with Sun Don’t Shine, a gritty and minimalist take that substitutes glory for uncertainty and romance for uncertainty and regret.
In most of those films, the outlaws love their life and consequences seem meaninglessly far away until it suddenly arrives. Badlands is unique among the above films because it is not so much about the killer as it is about the girl who gets roped along and her loss of innocent. It’s lyrical and impressionistic and conveys the same naïve view of life its protagonist holds. Sun Don’t Shine takes that idea even further; Crystal (Kate Lyn Sheil) is neurotic where Holly was serene, and the film achieves its beauty through ugly images of summer heat and mud where Badlands opted for open plains and gorgeous sunsets. It’s the darker side of Badlands, the one that could’ve been told if that couple weren’t so quick to move on. Crystal and her abusive lover Leo (Kentucker Audley) is a much less ideal couple, her paranoia the exact opposite of what he can handle when they are trying to dump the body of her husband, presumably killed so the two could start their own life. The problem is, their quest to establish alibis involves him staying with an ex of whom Crystal is not too fond.
Sun Don’t Shine achieves beauty through ugliness. Crystal’s tangled hair and Leo’s shirtless, sweaty body evoke a Floridian summer heat; long, handheld takes threaten to undermine every place of comfort they come across, none more chilling than a rape that takes place in the domestic space that Crystal has been clamoring for both in voiceover and to Leo; mud, parking lots, and the side of the road take the place of ocean and sunsets. The sound is just as harsh, with Lyn Sheil being especially impressive in her character’s most frantic moments. When she sees Leo kissing the other woman, one wonders whether the pitch of her voice has been manipulated, and smash-cuts threaten to unravel the film’s narrative strand. During the more evocative stretches of the film, we hear voices but don’t see lips move, symbolizing the enormous disconnect that plagues the couple. Just as important are the moments of silence, which add a paranoid tension and unveil even more about character relations.
Less impressive than her sensory details is Seimetz’s storytelling. The film repeatedly withholds information to an uncanny extent, maximizing the chance to constantly surprise the audience. It’s more akin to viewer manipulation than genuine drama, and the film is at its weakest when it is at its most straightforward; densely edited, associative sequences vastly overpower more direct scenes, and Sheil’s and Audley’s haphazard acting is more powerful (and believable) when editing (by Seimetz and David Lowery, director of the reportedly similar upcoming Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) is the weapon on display. Indeed, Sun Don’t Shine is more about the accumulating details that exist outside of the “hide the body” journey at its heart, and for that reason, the conceit never becomes overbearing. A major focus is Crystal’s repeated plight for family, her wish for a good house to share with Leo and a good place to raise her child. Sun Don’t Shine is essentially a parable of the American Dream gone wrong and, in a few memorable moments, a commentary on class trappings and how they plague even those who are in love.
Indeed, part of what makes Sun Don’t Shine so resonate is that by the end it is clear that Leo genuinely loves Crystal, and yet he is horrible to her. Just as bad, she is caught between knowing she deserves better and realizing that Leo is helping her bury her husband, which isn’t something just anybody would do. Their relationship is brutal enough, but that it unfolds violently and threatens to overrun most of our senses, that it makes every hit palpable and gives every nervous quibble a sense of gravity, makes it especially uncomfortable, as if everything could explode without warning. It’s an uncomfortable love story, far grimmer than its preceding criminals-on-the-run films, but also a more complicated one, a harsh probing of our worst tendencies.