Film Review: ‘Grand Isle’

Hunky handyman meets crazy couple during a hurricane in this waterlogged Southern Gothic suspense tale.

Stephen S. Campanelli
Nicolas Cage, KaDee Strickland, Luke Benward, Kelsey Grammer
Release Date:
Dec 6, 2019

Running time: 97 MIN.

Official Site: https://screenmediafilms.net/productions/details/2947/Grand-Isle

A sub-Tennessee Williams potboiler triangle between restless sexpot, impotent husband, and hunky handyman ever-so-slowly congeals into a lumpy gumbo of thriller elements in “Grand Isle.” This third directorial big-screen feature for veteran Steadicam operator Stephen S. Campanelli has plenty of potential guilty-pleasure signifiers — not least being top-billed Nicolas Cage’s sixth vehicle this year — but the overripe (if underdeveloped) payoff arrives only after a full hour of patience-testing buildup. Opening on 15 screens Dec. 6, it looks to make a much larger commercial impact as a night’s disposable home entertainment in simultaneous on-demand release.

An opening sequence that turns out to be something of a red herring finds Cage’s tippling ex-Marine Walter Franklin roused from slumber in 1988 by a break-in at his rural southern Louisiana manse. The would-be thief manages to get back outside, but is shot by the master of the house as he’s clambering over the picket fence.

The next day, local boy Buddy (Luke Benward) is dispatched to repair the damage, being in the market for any odd job. Just out of the Navy, he’s got a nagging young wife (Emily Marie Palmer) and baby to feed, so he puts up with Walter’s considerable, goading attitude. Even more disconcerting are the excessively friendly vibes emanating from Mrs. Franklin aka Fancy (KaDee Strickland), a former “jazz singer” introduced sidling down the stairs singing “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” in a feather-trimmed nightie and high heels. Having fully descended, she murmurs “Happy anniversary, baby,” and promptly slaps her husband (because he forgot again).

Popular on Variety

Soon enough, Buddy is being tugged like a chew toy between dogs by these marital combatants, a fight not eased by Walter’s liquor consumption or Fancy’s libidinous needs. When a forecast hurricane’s downpour arrives, terminating any further fence-mending, Buddy is eager to flee. But his truck won’t start, forcing him to take shelter with the unloving couple. After-dinner mint juleps, under-table crotch rubbing, and much florid dialogue ensue. Still, it takes a very long time before actual criminal doings commence — including, but not limited to, the revelation of just what horrors lie behind that heavily locked basement door. (Hint: Something similar comprised a considerably more shocking subplot in John Waters’ “Pink Flamingoes” nearly half a century ago.)

All this is framed as a flashback confession told to Kelsey Grammer’s courtly police detective by Buddy, who now stands accused of murder but denies it. The resolution is all too simple, and you have to wonder why “Grand Isle” spends nearly two-thirds of its running time on creaky torrid-emotions-on-the-humid-bayou nonsense, awkwardly cramming most of its actual plot and action into the final stretch.

Adding insult to injury, the script by Rich Donat and Iver William Jallah also gives Cage’s Vietnam vet character a couple unhinged if sincere rants about our nation forgetting those who sacrificed for it. Both actor and film take these moments seriously, but the issues thus raised are hopelessly trivialized by their context of so much contrived Southern Gothic silliness.

Indeed, it’s hard to know just what this mashup of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “The People Under the Stairs” (among other things) was intending — though clearly, it doesn’t work. The actors do as well as they can, less campily than you might expect given the circumstances. Yet “Grand Isle” renders naturalism superfluous, and it isn’t witty or knowing enough to fully embrace its own over-the-top-ness. Indeed, it’s one of those films that might sound outrageously entertaining in full-disclosure capsule description, but in execution largely wavers between the dullish and the irritating.

The movie leans heavily on stock notions of deep-dyed Deep South “atmosphere.” Yet the Franklins’ house looks like it was painted last month, then decorated last week, in a boutique style somewhere between an upscale AirBnB selling “old-school Southern charm” and an episode of “Red Shoe Diaries.” That sense of slightly-stagy airlessness extends to the package overall, despite on-location shooting and pro tech contributions.

Film Review: 'Grand Isle'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Nov. 29, 2019. Running time: 97 MIN.

Production: A Screen Media release of an Iver William Pictures, Orwo Studios, Saturn Films presentation in association with Jeff Rice Films. Producers: Jake Seal, Raja Collins, Jeff Rice. Executive producers: Andre Relis, Justin Begnaud, Terry Bird, Alastair Burlingham, John Wyn. Co-executive producer: Matthew Helderman.

Crew: Director: Stephen S. Campanelli. Screenplay: Iver William Jallah, Rich Ronat. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Eric Moynier. Editor: Eric Potter. Music: Josh Atchley.

With: Nicolas Cage, KaDee Strickland, Luke Benward, Kelsey Grammer, Zulay Henao, Oliver Trevena, Emily Marie Palmer, Beatrice Hernandez.

More Film

  • Sam Rockwell Awards Season Fashion

    Stylist Michael Fisher Discusses Sam Rockwell's Red Carpet Looks

    Stylist Michael Fisher wanted Sam Rockwell’s looks to reflect his dynamic acting: “Sam and I gravitate towards color and pattern.” Sept. 8 “It’s a celebration with Sam every time we have a fitting,” says stylist Michael Fisher of longtime client Rockwell. “He’s such a vibrant, amazing actor and personality, and he really enjoys these moments, [...]

  • Conductor and Composer Eímear Noone pictured

    Oscars to Feature Female Orchestra Conductor for the First Time

    A woman will be conducting at the Oscars for the first time on Sunday, Feb. 9, the Academy announced today. Irish-born composer-conductor Eímear Noone will conduct excerpts from the five nominated scores. She is the first female to lead the orchestra in the history of the televised awards, the Academy said. Details beyond that are [...]

  • Tina Fey attends the "Mean Girls"

    Tina Fey Announces Movie Adaptation of Broadway's 'Mean Girls' Musical

    It’s good to be mean…the “Mean Girls” musical, that is. Producers of the hit Broadway show announced today that the Tony-nominated production is being adapted for the big screen for Paramount Pictures. The musical is based on the 2004 movie of the same name. “I’m very excited to bring ‘Mean Girls’ back to the big screen,’ Tina Fey, [...]

  • Justin Simien Variety Creative Impact Honoree

    Variety's Creative Impact Honoree Justin Simien Returns to Sundance With 'Bad Hair'

    Justin Simien understands the value of a compelling story. Before he broke out with his award-winning indie satire “Dear White People” in 2014, the 36-year-old American filmmaker worked in publicity, doing gigs at studios like Paramount and Focus Features. It was this experience, working on massively successful hits such as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Paranormal Activity,” [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content