At the heart of the independent drama “Delia’s Gone,” from writer / director Robert Budreau, is a compelling mystery and revenge story about a brother who is determined to solve his sister’s murder. The disciplined storytelling, weighty themes, and solid acting are all positives, but they unfortunately are eclipsed by the film’s overall distasteful feel.
Louis (Stephan James) has an intellectual disability and lives with his older sister Delia (Genelle Williams) in rural Ohio. After their father’s death, Delia has been battling a drug and alcohol addiction that has been causing a strain on her relationship with her brother. After disappearing to a bar one night, Delia’s truck is spotted at a local bar, where it has been abandoned. This leads the town sheriff Fran (Marisa Tomei) and her deputy Bo (Paul Walter Hauser) to pay a visit to Delia’s home, where they find the woman dead on the floor and Louis with blood-covered hands.
After being pressured by the police with a supposed mountain of evidence, Louis admits to murdering his sister and is handed down a lengthy prison sentence. Seven years later, Louis has been moved to a home care facility where he is visited by a local neer-do-well Stacker (Travis Fimmel), who claims he is one of the last men to see Delia alive. Implying that there’s more to the story, Louis erupts in a rage and escapes on a mission: to find out who really is responsible for his sister’s mysterious death.
It’s a classic revenge narrative with a sympathetic antihero, and Budreau’s timing with his storytelling is effective. Slow reveals of bits and pieces of information lead to crucial clues, allowing viewers to solve the mystery as it unfolds. I enjoyed that the film kept me guessing, yet it was a letdown because nothing about it ever felt suspenseful. This is probably because it was obvious from the get-go that Louis wasn’t responsible for the murder and that it was a setup.
While this is not a complex story, there are considerable themes at play, from wrongful incarceration and the prevalence of shady law enforcement officers, to the ease at which some men can hide behind their religion and faith. The most effective topic presented is just how easy it easy to convince a mentally challenged person to confess to a crime. It’s something that’s seen again and again in entertainment and society, and it’s horrifying each and every time. It’s a pity that Budreau doesn’t run with the more sophisticated points of his screenplay.
The technical aspects of the film are in line with what viewers should expect from an independent project. Without a massive budget, there isn’t a lot of spectacle. Simple, straightforward lighting and camerawork is all that’s needed. The original score (by David Braid) is overwrought with urgency and is distracting because it does not fit the story. The performances are appropriate, and Tomei and Fimmel are the standouts. James is believable as Louis, but he sometimes goes so far that he makes his character feel like a caricature.
There’s a lot to like about “Delia’s Gone” writing-wise, but the major problem here is Budreau choosing to give the lead character a cognitive disability. He and James walk a little too close to the sun with a problematic portrayal that feels borderline offensive and wrong, which makes the film uncomfortable to watch. When the truth is revealed, it’s also unpleasant.