David Norman’s psychological thriller “Left of Center” opens, literally, with a bang. It’s a sudden, jarring shot of an Oklahoma Highway Patrolman —having pulled over a sedan along Highway 177, presumably for a routine stop— who catches a bullet with his skull, fired out the driver-side window. The patrolman, Officer Jon Ferguson (J. Bryson Baker), wakes up sweating in the next frame, leading you to believe it was just a dream, but that doesn’t really answer the question of chronology: Was it the beginning of the film, or the end?
Some tired dialogue loosens this initial intrigue up over the course of the thriller, but “Left of Center”’s not without a lot of merit. Norman’s camera work is regularly on point, beautifully capturing the open, highway-traversing landscapes of rural Oklahoma at magic hour, and it occasionally reminded me of some of the gritty highway-killer scenes in the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men”. Early on Officer Ferguson pulls over a couple of teenagers for driving recklessly, and the slow-pan point of view of his approach to their car should be familiar to any Oklahoman who’s ever been pulled over by a member of the Highway Patrol (Admit it, you’ve been caught speeding once or twice too).
We meet Chief Tom Parker (Jason Wilkinson), a Payne County sheriff with a very pregnant wife and tension in the household, and his and Officer Ferguson’s paths cross as they investigate the brutal highway murder of the aforementioned kids Ferguson pulled over the night before. A mysterious young man freshly discharged from the local sanitarium factors in there too, creeping around the town of Glencoe while Ferguson’s past is muddied by flashbacks of an abusive father and his present is concerned with the increasingly bizarre behavior of his out-of-touch mother. Murders along the highway continue, and there’s a short cat-and-mouse game between Ferguson and Parker leading up to the film’s final 15 minutes, which provide a satisfying rush of action, but the ultimate payoff is hampered by the film’s unoriginal twist.
Lauren Caster is terrific as Laura, the object of Ferguson’s advances who also has a history with Parker, and Wilkinson’s sympathetic depiction of the tired Glencoe sheriff keeps you invested in the plight of the small town he’s protecting. “Left of Center” screens Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Harkins Bricktown Cinema 11. – carney
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