HIT ’EM UP: Fight Netflix fatigue with this time-twisting double feature

Joey Bada$$, left, and Andrew Howard in a scene from “Two Distant Strangers.” The short film has been nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Live Action Short category. (Publicly photo)

(Editor’s note: The following article contains some mild spoilers and some adult language.)

Double features are a thing of the past, but a pair of gripping time-benders available on Netflix may help render that notion outdated.

Fair warning: watching the films “Shimmer Lake” and “Two Distant Strangers” back-to-back could be more of a mind fuck than you’re looking for on a Friday night. But both are more than worth the time — if not for their inventive plots and structure than certainly for the profound insights they provide into the complicated and twisted inner monologue of post-modern America.

The Way it is

Directed by Travon Free (who also wrote) and Martin Desmond Roe, 2020’s “Two Distant Strangers” is a 32-minute short that could be described as “Groundhog Day” reimagined as a Jordan Peele horror flick. But to reduce this clever, poignant film to an elevator pitch would do the filmmakers a massive disservice, as this Oscar-nominated work stands wholly apart from its influences and may in fact help spawn a renewed interest in the form.

It’s only a mild spoiler to reveal the plot borrows liberally from the 1993 Harold Ramis comedy classic that sent Bill Murray through a seemingly endless loop of reliving the same small-town Groundhog Day celebration with each new day. But in Free and Roe’s reimagining, the main character, a young graphic designer named Carter (Joey Bada$$) is forced to relive a string of violent encounters with a rogue police officer named Merk (Andrew Howard).

As these encounters play out, Carter finds himself trapped in an endless cycle of victimhood, his every waking hour haunted by the specter of police brutality. His journey of self discovery ultimately leads him to question what he believes and forces difficult conversations to the surface. It’s how these conversations play out that will leave the viewer with plenty to ponder as the end credits roll to Bruce Hornsby’s “That’s Just the Way it is.”

Will anything change? That’s the central question that remains unintentionally unanswered by the genre-blending film, whose title is taken from a line from Tupac’s “Changes” — a song that itself samples Hornsby.

Free’s script bounces unpredictably from horrific violence to lighthearted comedy with deftness, a remarkable accomplishment considering the weightiness of the subject matter. The writer-director’s past credits include working as writer on “Full Frontal” and “Hood Adjacent,” and his comic chops buoy a script that could have otherwise sunk into melancholy.

The political themes of the film are not subtle, an ingenious and intentional choice designed to force many viewers to question their own internal biases in ways they may not have expected — or even wanted — to address. Though just half an hour long, the film is destined to leave a lasting and profound legacy and is more than worthy of the Oscar accolades it has received.

It will be interesting to see if short films like “Two Distant Strangers” catch on as viewing habits continue to evolve. Attention spans are shorter, platforms are desperate to gain users and content is becoming painfully diluted. For shlock-weary folks terrified of the idea of sitting through yet another full-length flop, short films could be a welcome breath of fresh air. As “Two Distance Strangers” proves, a film doesn’t have to be 90 minutes long to entertain, enthrall and engage.

End of the Innocence

Oren Uziel’s gothic methamphetamine opus “Shimmer Lake” received decidedly mixed reviews when it was released in 2017, and it’s not hard to see why as the first few minutes of this Coen-esque gem unfold in seemingly befuddling fashion. Told as a series of vignettes that play out in reverse, the plot is initially impossible to follow and will leave you wondering if you’ve stumbled into some kind of misguided homage to the films of David Lynch.

But patient viewers are ultimately rewarded for their faith with big payoffs in the form of “oh, NOW I get it,” jokes that hit harder are are far more satisfying than you might expect.

Another reason the film may have been so widely panned (it’s got just a 60% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes) is its against-type casting, which includes a spate of actors actors known mostly for comic roles — most notably Rainn Wilson (“The Office”), Rob Corddry (“Hot Tub Time Machine”), Ron Livingston (“Office Space”) and John Michael Higgins (“Best in Show”). Such a cast likely had many viewers expecting a comic romp — which “Shimmer Lake” most definitely is not.

It’s not a lot of things, actually, and much of the plot is intentionally left out of the narrative. In fact, the movie’s brilliance comes in the way it leaves major elements of the story completely untold, and it’s these hinted-at, unspoken gaps that provide the dark matter that holds Uziel’s brilliant tragicomedy together.

The story centers around a bungled small-town bank heist and its aftermath, but the robbery is only the canvas on which Uziel paints a complex and disturbing portrait of middle American desperation. The protagonist is sheriff Zeke Sikes (Benjamin Walker of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” fame), a straight-shooter whose wayward brother Andy (Wilson) has become ensnared in a downward spiral of deceit set in motion by a former high school pal turned meth cook named Ed Burton (Wyatt Russell).

The widespread destruction wrought by methamphetamine on Middle America can’t easily be shown or described, and Uziel acknowledges this by explicitly avoiding ever looking at the topic head on. Instead, through hints, suggestions, subtle looks, innuendo and pregnant pauses, he says the loud part quiet in the same way small town secrets become ever more elephantine the longer they remain unspoken.

And the characters in “Shimmer Lake” have more than their share of secrets. Infidelity, loss, corruption, sexuality, addiction, shame, regret — they’re all there in spades just lurking behind the uneasy smiles and feigned normalcy of people struggling unsuccessfully to keep their souls afloat. Even football culture and head injuries get a nod as Uziel gives life to a myriad of modern issues with an unsettling mix of slapstick comedy and ultra-realistic violence that induce a manic, unsettled feeling in the viewer that fits perfectly with the message the filmmaker is trying to convey.

It’s an admittedly difficult movie to watch, but one that comes with immense payoffs for the patient. By the end of “Shimmer Lake,” you’ll be left with a profound sense of loss and a nagging sense that each character’s life could have turned out different had they just made one or two better choices along the way.

Some things never change.

“Shimmer Lake”

Written and directed by Oren Uziel

83 minutes

Not rated (includes graphic violence, some nudity, adult language and themes; not appropriate for small children)

4.5 stars (out of 5)

“Two Distant Strangers”

Directed by Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe

Written by Travon Free

32 minutes

Not rated (includes graphic violence, adult language and themes; would be appropriate for mature teens but not small children)

4.5 stars (out of 5)

Matt Tunseth is a freelance writer from Anchorage, Alaska. Write to him at

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