So many VOD-centric dramas call to mind the direct-to-video Blockbuster fodder of yesteryear that it’s actually refreshing to come across one that’s more reminiscent of a cleverly plotted TV-movie from primetime of the 1970s. It’s quite easy to imagine “A Crooked Somebody” airing as an “ABC Movie of the Week” during the Polyester Era with, say, Monte Markham and Robert Culp doing yeoman service in the lead roles and a good 20 minutes or so shaven from the narrative to allow for commercial breaks. On the other hand, it’s even easier to simply enjoy it as a satisfyingly crafted entertainment that doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but does take a few surprising detours from well-trodden genre paths.
Rich Sommer (of TV’s “Mad Men”) hits all the right notes on a scale ranging from smooth operator to desperate prevaricator as Michael Vaughn, a minor league “psychic medium” who gets caught up in his own con while attempting to take a short cut from frustrating obscurity to national celebrity. We meet him during what appears to be just another stop on a promotional tour for his least-selling book, another sparsely attended gathering in a hotel ballroom where he offers comfort to gullible audience members with vaguely detailed assurances that their departed loved ones are at peace on the other side.
Chief among those in attendance: Chelsea (“Downtown Abbey” vet Joanne Froggatt), Michael’s convenient plant and partner, and Sam (Ed Harris), his disapproving preacher father, both of whom know Vaughan is a fraud — and Nathan (Clifton Collins Jr.) who assumes, and fears, that Michael is the real deal.
Nathan figures the faux psychic really does know where all the bodies are buried — specifically, where Nathan buried one of them after a botched robbery nearly two decades ago — and decides to push Michael toward an up-close and personal meeting with the spirits he claims to evoke. But Michael manages to avoid a bloody quietus by preying upon Nathan’s guilt, much like he’s always managed to manipulate credulous marks in his audience, and convinces Nathan that he can help him makes amends to Stacy (Amanda Crew), the grownup daughter of the victim who disappeared without a trace years earlier.
Working from a smartly constructed script by Andrew Zilch, director Trevor White (“Jamesy Boy”) does an impressive job of propelling the narrative along parallel tracks of arrestingly suspenseful thriller and knowing media satire. Even as he placates Nathan with the potential for dearly desired closure, Michael seizes upon knowledge gained from the remorseful killer to make a bid for the kind of “Crossing Over” success that would impress John Edward (who gets a wink-wink shout-out in the dialogue).
The good news: Michael gets the publicity he ravenously pursues as he leads TV crews and search parties to the burial ground he claims to have supernaturally divined. The bad news: He also attracts the attention of police detectives (Michael Mosley, Paul Ben-Victor) who are not nearly as unquestioningly appreciative of his help as they initially appear. The worse news: Other people involved in the cold case can spot a fraud when they see one.
“A Crooked Somebody” works as well as it does largely because the performances are so thoroughly persuasive. Collins is a standout, generating equal measures of pity and fear as a recovering substance abuser whose rehab may be less than real, and whose pursuit of redemption might be undermined by his capacity for violence.
A similarly deft balancing act is carried out by Harris and real-life wife Amy Madigan, making the most of their relatively few scenes as Michael’s parents, who suggest why and how the boy sought attention from an early age. Harris’ preacher recalls warning Michael that “it’s better to be an honest nobody than a crooked somebody.” But Michael evidently learned another lesson from his dad: Many people can take solace in being told that death doesn’t have the final word. And, more important, a career can be built upon that.