The manic, filter-free, all-id persona Seann William Scott embodied in the roles that first brought him to attention nearly a couple decades ago — notably teen comedies “Road Trip,” “Dude, Where’s My Car?” and the “American Pie” series — did something inspired with a familiar type. The alpha frat-bro character is usually a villain, or at least a tool. But this actor lent polo-collar-up dudedom in shark-like search of sex or any other stimulus an absurdist, howling-at-the-moon zest.
He could play hyper (as in “American Pie’s” Stifler) or dirt-dumb (“Goon” and its sequel) with equal aplomb. Yet somehow the industry couldn’t quite figure out what to do with him, resulting in too many misfired comedies and an eventual general sense of “Whatever happened to Seann William Scott?” Sure, he filled Clayne Crawford’s vacancy on TV’s “Lethal Weapon,” and still lends voice to “Ice Age” sequels. But somehow it seems wrong that a performer who has been this memorable on several occasions should slip off the radar — particularly when he’s barely past 40.
“Bloodline” has the bright idea of aiming Scott’s intensity in a different direction from chasing skirt or weed: Here he’s a clean-cut suburban husband and new father who moonlights as a serial killer. The star dials it way down from trademark parts of yore. But the manic edge is still there, working fine for a character who’s trying (well, none too hard) to repress his homicidal urges. Scott has no moments of repose here; we always see the internal tension ready to explode. When his protagonist Evan gives in to a stabbing frenzy, you sense he’s barely gotten started when the victim has the poor sportsmanship to already be dead. He is very, very tightly wound.
The rest of “Bloodline” is a little tame for the energy its main actor taps. This is one of those films that wants to do something unusual and clever with the serial killer concept, yet goes where several others (not to mention hit series “Dexter”) have gone before: in a vaguely black-comedy direction banking on the disconnect between outwardly vanilla lifestyle and bloodsoaked secret activities. Documentary producer Henry Jacobson’s first narrative feature as director and co-writer isn’t bad, but just middling as an offbeat crime drama, and pretty much a nonstarter as a thriller or horror exercise. It counts too heavily on the shock value of familiar ideas the script doesn’t lift above contrivance, and which his direction treats with a deadpan restraint that doesn’t fully pay off.
What turns out to be a prologue finds a night-shift hospital worker (Christie Herring) getting her throat cut in the staff shower, then buried in a shallow grave. We’re meant to assume this is the handiwork of Evan, next seen patiently rocking his crying newborn to sleep so stressed-out wife Lauren (Mariela Garriga) can get some rest.
The narrative then rewinds three months, with Lauren yet to give birth, and Evan counseling at-risk teens as a Southern California high school social worker. His ongoing student clients have real problems: Ray (Sean H. Scully) is the son of a just-released violent convict; Kelly (Larsen Thompson) has a molesting uncle; honor student Chris (Raymond Cham) sees his fragile domestic stability threatened by the return of a parent with a drug problem. Evan takes a genuine paternal interest in their well-being, perhaps too much so.
At home things are problematic, too. Lauren, who comes from a broken family background, is demanding, borderline neurotic, her mood swings excessive even for a first pregnancy. She’s no calmer after the baby turns out to be a high-maintenance infant. Though Lauren is initially opposed to Evan’s pushy mom Marie (Dale Dickey) moving in to “help out,” she does anyway, creating another stress point.
These escalating tensions soon lead to Evan “venting” by growing far too proactive in alleviating his students’ worries — i.e. delivering lethal harm upon the adults who distress them. It takes a while before we realize this is a problem-solving method with some family history. To a degree, “Bloodline” recalls all those 1960s chillers that followed “Psycho,” with their gloss of bogus “psychology” suggesting that madness and homicide might be passed along as an inheritance, like legacy china and silverware.
There are a couple decent twists, the best being the nonviolent one that gives the lie to Evan’s murderous do-gooderism: When his students realize their tormentors are dead, that news only makes their already messed-up lives more troubled. In real life, murder never makes life simpler. But elsewhere, the screenplay’s terra is less firma, and it ends with a couple cheap ironies that belong to a more conventional genre film than “Bloodline” thinks it is, being neither particularly clever or credible.
Scott operates well within the movie’s limits, though you might wish it could make the kind of imaginative leap that would allow him to let it rip — the way Marjane Satrapi’s “The Voices” did for Ryan Reynolds, another actor with the equipment to shade antic amiability into homicidal mania. But “Bloodline” is crafted in essentially conservative terms, until a late use of split-screen that itself is still fairly low-key.
Well acted (though Garriga doesn’t quite make a coherent character out of Lauren, or create believable marital chemistry with Scott), this is a smooth movie that maybe should have been a little less tidy for maximum impact. But at the very least, it confirms that Scott shouldn’t have stopped starring in movies when he aged out of the cinematic frat house.