In the opening moments of “Blood on Her Name,” an arrestingly twisty and suspenseful Southern noir thriller in the tradition of “One False Move,” we’re introduced to Leigh, the working-class protagonist played by Bethany Anne Lind, with a jarring close-up that is at once explicit and ambiguous. Her face is battered, her breathing is labored, and she appears to have just gotten the worst of it in a fight.
But, then again, maybe not the very worst of it.
The bloodied man lying in front of her, we quickly learn, isn’t just unconscious or injured; he is seriously dead. And even before she pauses before completing a 911 call, it’s quite clear that, whatever the reason for the guy’s recent quietus, Leigh views his inconvenient corpse as incriminating evidence.
This is the first of several wrong decisions — most, but by no means all, made by Leigh — that propel the fatalistic narrative director Matthew Pope and co-writer Don M. Thompson have devised for “Blood on Her Name,” a film that remains relentlessly absorbing for all of its compact 83-minute length largely because it places its audience in the position of helpless witnesses to a slow-motion trainwreck.
Pope and Thompson shrewdly structure their story so that, right from the start, we’re prompted to have a rooting interest in Leigh, even before we know for certain exactly how culpable she is for — well, for what? A self-defense killing? A crime of passion? A violent conclusion to a criminal co-conspiracy? We learn the truth only gradually, as the filmmakers slowly unveil the motives of Leigh and other characters in the manner of someone slowly, almost tauntingly, peeling an onion.
But, again, they persuade us to be instinctively sympathetic toward Leigh, thereby making it all the more nerve-wracking when she tries — belatedly, ill-advisedly — to do the right thing. If it seems like I’m being a tad evasive about plot particulars, well, that’s only because I am. Your enjoyment of “Blood on Her Name” likely will be inversely proportionate to how much you know about it ahead of time.
Leigh — played by Lind throughout the movie with exceptionally compelling and emotionally precise skill — owns the none-too-successful small-town garage where the act of violence takes place, and she’s anxious to move the body as quickly as possible, as far away as possible. But she has a change of heart before she dumps it into a nearby lake. Rather, she feels that the dead man’s girlfriend and teenage son are entitled to have some sense of closure, or at least find comfort in the knowledge that the guy didn’t simply abandon them.
So she stashes the corpse in a shed at the trailer park where they reside, and leaves behind an anonymous note expressing regret. It’s a decent thing to do, but also a terribly self-incriminating mistake. And to make matters worse, the note isn’t the only thing she leaves behind.
As Leigh’s mistakes accumulate, we’re periodically given jigsaw-piece revelations about why she is doing what she’s doing, and how much what she’s done in the past is an impetus. The info comes mostly through her contacts with such vividly defined supporting characters as Ryan (Jared Ivers), her teenage son, whose own violent behavior could make him a prime suspect; Richard (Will Patton), her estranged father, a sheriff who’s willing to bend and break a few laws to protect his daughter; Rey (Jimmy Gonzales), a mechanic who appears to be Leigh’s sole remaining employee at her failing business; and Dani (Elisabeth Rohm), the victim’s girlfriend, who turns out to have more than a little in common with Leigh.
The interactions and miscalculations interlock with what feels like the inevitability of unforgiving fate. At the same time, however, you are never not aware that one smart move could possibly forestall disaster. Everything leads inexorably to a dead-solid-perfect denouement that suggests a perfect moral for this drama about desperate characters driven to extremes: Once you’re well along on the road to perdition, it may not be a good idea to attempt a detour.