In “South of Heaven,” a Texas melodrama that’s as convincing as a taxidermied jackalope, Jason Sudeikis plays Jimmy Ray, a freshly paroled felon with a rootin’-tootin’ case of bad luck. His childhood sweetheart (Evangeline Lilly) is dying of a strain of cancer that’s beatified her into a smiling, glowing ever-patient saint. Yet, the couple’s 12-year engagement is further delayed by a series of creeps and coincidences that will force Sudeikis’s cornball bank robber to brandish an electric drill and, eventually, a gun. Can’t a good guy get a honeymoon?
Aharon Keshales, who directed the film and wrote it alongside Kai Mark and Navot Papushado, aspires to say something about misunderstood antiheroes and the futility of escalating vengeance. (His and Papushado’s previous thriller, “Big Bad Wolves,” had real bite.) Here, however, the execution is at once laconic and nonsensical. There’s not just one car crash ex-Machina — there’s two.
Perhaps the script could have been half-salvaged if it steered into the kind of steroidal masculine rampage that might star Liam Neeson. But in style and tone, “South of Heaven” asks to be taken earnestly, a flaw magnified by Sudeikis’s aw-shucks performance, all twitchy, tiny smiles that demand the audience’s love even as Jimmy makes one ludicrous choice after another. At one point, his character’s predicament is symbolized by a claw machine clenching a teddy bear.
There are a few technical bright spots. While mostly tasked to shoot in tasteful monochrome, the cinematographer Matt Mitchell does pull off a nifty tracking shot of a home invasion, and the composer David Fleming puts down the acoustic guitar to score Jimmy’s job at a loading dock with a rattling of frisky percussion. That scene is meant to evoke monotony, but it has more zip than all of the whizzing bullets to come.