The publicity and controversy surrounding the Trayvon Martin killing could well lend attention to “Deadline,” an otherwise routine whodunit about a racially motivated murder. Although helmer Curt Hahn champions the causes of racial justice and crusading journalism, he can’t seem to find a tone that’s consistent or that befits the gravity of his subject matter. Limited release will remain just that.
Working from his 2007 novel “Grievances,” scripter Mark Ethridge sets the central crime in 1993 Alabama, where sweethearts Wallace Sampson (Romonte Hamer) and Vanessa Brown (Tucker Perry), both African-American, are saying good night and talking about hope: President Clinton has just been sworn in; Maya Angelou spoke at the inaugural. They’re in love; they part. Moments later, Wallace is dead.
What happened? Even the older Vanessa (Maisha Dyson) isn’t quite sure, and no one in any official capacity has bothered to find out — until a police officer is shot at the very same spot, 19 years later. The second crime spurs a young local woman, Trey Hall (Lauren Jenkins), whose father is one of the town’s leading rednecks, to start digging up the old Sampson case, and to enlist enterprising Nashville Times reporter Matt Harper (Steve Talley) to investigate with her.
Joined by his paper’s resident aging delinquent, Ronnie Bullock (Eric Roberts, who may have been channeling Robert Downey Jr. in “Zodiac”), Matt takes up the case and the cause, despite a juggernaut of objections from his editors, as well as from Baxter (David Ditmore), the bean-counter who’s making life at the paper miserable for everyone. To Ethridge’s credit, he’s hip to the logistics of a certain brand of austerity-driven, big-city non-journalism.
One gets the sense that the story might have been better suited to a 1930s Southern setting, although the Martin case more or less argues against that. Still, Ethridge’s characters are largely cartoonish; Trey’s father (David Dwyer), is such a racist that even a racist would be embarrassed, and the local authorities, including the seemingly civilized Judge Buchanan (Tommy Cresswell) are a bit too autocratic to be believable. No doubt such people exist, but for the purposes of a drama that’s not necessarily about them, they represent too much of an unsavory distraction.
Given the sober nature of much of the material, Hahn’s touch is far too light, even sitcomish, and the music choices are bewildering (the injections of hard rock seem to come out of nowhere). The actors, who include singer-songwriter J.D. Souther as Matt’s cancer-stricken journalist father, don’t seem entirely sure what kind of a movie they’re in. Black characters, like the Rev. Young (Darryl Van Leer), are either sober or indignant; white characters, notably the blustering Baxter, are played for low comedy. It doesn’t add up — not to much, anyway.
Tech credits are generally good.