Considering how often Katherine Heigl has been slammed for not being just another docile, eager-to-please female celebrity, it’s hard not to suspect that she might have relished the chance to play an unapologetically ball-busting shrew — a grotesquely exaggerated version of a stereotype she’s been assigned many times over. Indeed, Heigl’s performance as a coolly murderous model housewife is the only real reason to even consider watching “Home Sweet Hell,” an otherwise flailing and risible tale of adultery, extortion and suburban malaise that suggests a poor woman’s “Gone Girl” — one stripped of all tension, style and subtext, and instead rendered with a level of over-the-top gore that would give even David Fincher pause. Already out on VOD ahead of its March 13 theatrical release, this dismal stab at a darkly comic thriller is hardly the vehicle to resuscitate its lead actress’s bigscreen career, but it’s unlikely to do much for anyone else’s, either.
Heigl plays Mona Champagne, a domestic terrorist with such a psychotic perfectionist streak that she can tell when her furniture-salesman husband, Don (Patrick Wilson), has placed the wrong knives in the chopping block — a sly bit of foreshadowing in a script (credited to a trio of writers) that otherwise favors crude, witless overstatement at every turn. Indeed, one of the more appreciable aspects of Heigl’s performance is that she manages to bring even a modicum of breathy, fine-grained nuance to the part of this castrating harpy. When she’s not rearing their young children (Madison Wolfe, Aiden Flowers) to follow in her calculating, well-mannered footsteps, Mona takes every opportunity to remind Don about his shortcomings as a provider, as well as his duty to ensure that they meet their goals as a family — every one of which she’s written down in a neatly arranged scrapbook.
Since Mona is willing to have sex only on rare, carefully scheduled occasions, a frustrated Don soon begins a torrid affair with Dusty (Jordana Brewster), the very attractive young woman that he and his sad-sack associate (Jim Belushi) have recently hired at their furniture store. It’s not long before she tells Don she’s pregnant with his child, and only the dimmest bulbs in the audience will be surprised to learn that Dusty, in cahoots with her thuggish b.f. (AJ Buckley), was planning to blackmail the naive, helpless family man all along. What the schemers fail to take into account is the fact that Don is far more scared of his wife than of any external threat, and rightly so: Not long after he throws himself on Mona’s mercy and confesses his infidelity, she determines that their only possible course of action is to eliminate Dusty permanently.
Proceeding from this cut-rate noir premise, the movie charts an increasingly frenzied, blood-spattered path through its suburban environs (shot in and around New Orleans). The road to this particular “Hell” is paved with as many cliches as corpses; a severed head turning up in a freezer is bad enough, but two suggests a real failure of imagination. Director Anthony Burns (who previously helmed the little-seen Sundance 2010 entry “Skateland”) handles the violence with a dispiriting lack of finesse, typified by a gruesome setpiece in which Mona, armed with a saw and sheathed in plastic, fully reveals her true colors (all of which happen to be red). Another brutal sequence, involving a remote trailer home and a samurai sword, suggests a bizarre grab from “Kill Bill Vol. 2.” Functioning in obviously ironic counterpoint to the action is the score composed by Josh Kelley (the real-life Mr. Heigl), which includes a deceptively retro-sounding original tune, “Moon and the Stars,” that’s referenced in the dialogue throughout.
By dint of its subject matter if not its execution or tone, the movie can’t help but recall the much more serious-minded takedowns of suburban emptiness that proliferated more than a decade ago, like “Happiness” and “American Beauty” (to say nothing of primetime soaps of the “Desperate Housewives” variety). The casting of Wilson alone will remind some of “Little Children,” though his wildly undisciplined performance here will only suffer from the comparison — all nervous tics, grimaces and overblown panic, exacerbated by one scene in which Don is coerced into snorting coke by Buckley’s heavily tattooed pimp. It’s no surprise that Wilson, with his bland good looks and nice-guy demeanor, keeps getting cast as weak-willed husbands (most recently in the sex-scandal drama “Zipper”), but this is one example that he might have done well to turn down.
The writing here simply isn’t adept or layered enough to convey the wannabe-subversive notion that husband and wife are never closer than when they’re forced to operate as a single, homicidal unit; nor does it succeed in plumbing the emotional and psychological depths of Mona’s particular pathology, despite one late scene that half-heartedly attempts to do so. All of which makes it more impressive that Heigl’s performance, though far from revelatory, manages to compel the viewer’s interest — perhaps because, like Mona herself, it evinces a quality that is in dispiritingly short supply throughout the rest of the movie: a sense of control.