Crime films are a fun genre, and within that genre live some of the best character pieces ever made. Writer and director John Swab clearly knows this, as his film is made up of references to lots of other films in the genre, and while two good performances save this movie, there’s not much here you won’t have seen before.
The film opens with a police officer stopping a truck. It’s routine; the truck was randomly selected, the officer says, and they need to see the manifest. But, of course, they aren’t cops at all, they’re robbers, and they need the manifest to single out the items they intend to steal. The opening scene of Ida Red is actually pretty good, up and including the point where it goes off the rails, and men start getting shot. It’s a good introduction to Wyatt (Josh Hartnett), the calm and collected brains of the operation.
While Wyatt is the brains on the ground, his mother Ida (Melissa Leo) runs the show, even from the prison cell she has been in for years. She has a terminal illness, and both she and Wyatt want nothing more than for her to die a free woman. While the bulk of the plot of the film is made up of cleaning up from the first heist and setting up for the bigger one in the third act (the one that promises to, of course, get them out of the game), the motivation is always Ida; the friction is always the push-pull fo family dynamics.
The family dynamics are the most interesting part of Ida Red. We’ve all seen films about crime families, and this one has no shortage of characters. Wyatt is, for his part, a doting uncle to his niece and supportive of his sister, but his brother in law is a cop (of course), and that provides required story friction as well. The result of this is that the first half of the film is ultimately more interesting than the second half, as learning about how this family functions (and doesn’t) has more storytelling potential than the action scenes in the end.
The problem, as outlined above, is that you’ve seen basically all of this before. While Hartnett and Grillo are both good in their parts, I can’t think of a single thing that isn’t cribbed from another story. Even the big third act heist ends up being a homage to Heat with the robbers running the streets with machine guns while the cops chase.
What saves the film are its performers. Melissa Leo is good here, but she doesn’t have much to do outside of the big speech she gives in the third act about how prison and regret have changed her as a person. Hartnett and Grillo are excellent, though. Hartnett continues to be, I believe, an underrated performer. His turn as Wyatt requires him to be wooden and unreadable at times, but he somehow makes that incredibly compelling. Grillo takes the opposite track –Dallas is a psychopath who revels in everything he does, including at one point dancing with a person he’s about to kill mercilessly. He’s turned up to 11 in this, and that won’t work for everyone, but it worked for me.
Also, while he doesn’t have much screen time, William Forsythe shows up just long enough to chew bubblegum and kick ass, which he does delightfully.
So with its good performance but derivative script, Ida Red ends up landing somewhere in the vicinity of fine. The kind of thing that you throw on one afternoon and after watching it can’t really remember much about other than you liked the people in it.
And that’s fine.
Ida Red had its North American premiere at the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival.
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