In movies and TV, covering up a crime, even one as drastic as murder, is as common an occurrence as sneezing. “The Lie” is all about a coverup, but Jay (Peter Sarsgaard) and his 15-year-old daughter, Kayla (Joey King), are hiding a crime that doesn’t feel like a crime. They’re hiding a freak accident as if it were a crime. And thus it becomes one.
The two are driving through the winter countryside to a weekend retreat hosted by Kayla’s ballet school when they spot her friend, Brittany (Devery Jacobs), at a roadside bus stop. She’s headed for the retreat too, so they give her a ride, and after stopping the car because there’s no restroom in sight, the two girls wander into the snowy woods to relieve themselves. Moments later there’s a scream, and Jay finds his daughter perched on the edge of a tall bridge, distraught. It seems that Brittany fell off the bridge and crashed into the icy rapids below.
Or as Kayla confesses minutes later, the two had a fight, and Kayla pushed her — but didn’t mean to kill her. The film digs its hooks into us by asking: If you, right now, were in this situation, what would you do?
Most of us have a do-the-right-thing reflex that says: Of course we would report it to the police. But Kayla, wracked with guilt over her part in what happened, is in no condition to placate the cops with an award-worthy performance as the innocent bystander. Jay, who has done nothing wrong, is as desperate to save his daughter as any ordinary man who finds himself in the middle of a thriller is desperate to save himself. And so he seizes on a course of action that’s too simple not to seem right: They’ll pretend the whole thing never happened. After all, no one saw them pick up Brittany; no one saw them stop at the side of the road; no one saw anything. (Though a truck sped by.) Easy enough to make an invisible “crime” disappear.
Except, of course, that it’s not easy at all, since covering things up in a movie is always a form of karma. It’s destined to come back at you.
“The Lie” is one of eight films produced by Blumhouse, the cutting-edge megaplex thriller and horror factory, all of which are set to be released this year on Amazon Prime as a collection under the title “Welcome to the Blumhouse.” Two of the films drop this week (“The Lie” today, “Black Box” on Friday), and two next week, which sounds like a vintage Blumhouse run-up to Halloween. But these movies aren’t horror roller-coasters. They’re lower-key thrillers bound together by themes of family, and by the diversity of the talent behind them.
Veena Sud, the writer-director of “The Lie,” has a gift for scenes that erupt into paroxysms of domestic dismay. Jay and Kayla’s mother, Rebecca (Mireille Enos, who’s like a more neurasthenic Julianne Moore), are divorced, but their plan to hide a missing girl behind a conspiracy of silence pulls them together. Rebecca is a corporate lawyer who was once a prosecutor, and Jay is some sort of local rock musician (which is probably why they’re divorced, though the matchup also feels very Toronto, the city where “The Lie” was filmed, and one that lends the movie its slightly sullen vibe of earnest middle-class hand-wringing). It’s not that these two have turned to the dark side; they’re trying to do what’s right, which is to save Kayla’s future. As Jay puts it, “They’re coming for her unless we do something.” But if that’s doing the right thing, why does it feel so wrong?
I first saw “The Lie” at the 2018 Toronto Film Festival, where I read a review that found the characters “dislikable.” Actually, the best thing about the movie, which is a remake of the 2015 German film “We Monsters,” is that these desperate parents do something dislikable, out of defensible motives, so the film gives us the queasy feeling of right and wrong, innocence and guilt all mashed together.
The drama grows momentarily arresting when Brittany’s Pakistani father, Sam (Cas Anvar), shows up, eager to know where his daughter is. He’s the Hitchcockian monkey wrench who keeps throwing himself, with escalating anger, into their perfect plan. There are also tense scenes with Rebecca’s former colleague, Detective Kenji (Patti Kim), who knows something is off on the case. Peter Sarsgaard has always been an actor who gives good torment, and he does that here; for a character who has to keep deadpanning it in front of cops, girlfriend, and so on, Jay has a face ripped up by anguish. And Joey King, from “The Kissing Booth,” creates an all-too-believable “difficult” vulnerable teenager whose agendas may be hidden even from herself.
The drama grows less good when you start toting up the film’s contrivances. Like the discovery of Brittany’s purse in Jay’s car (could he have been that careless?), or the grungy-B-movie manner in which he then buries it. Or the way that Brittany’s father senses everything yet never acts remotely scared about his daughter’s disappearance. Or the fact that the final twist — which, in itself, is a decent jaw-dropper — forces you to think back over the film, and when you do several elements of its logic simply wilt. “The Lie” is far from a total success, but it has enough tension and talent to make you hope that Blumhouse keeps aiming a quiet thriller or two at adults.