Many of the most engaging thrillers ask us to question what we, as ordinary people, would do when hurled into a dangerous situation. How far would we go to protect ourselves, and those we love? Matthew Pope’s debut feature asks these questions, and throws in the additional catalysts of addiction and blue-collar poverty in a tense and combustible mix of family drama and revenger’s tragedy that has been turning admiring critical heads wherever it’s been screened.

Leigh Tiller (Bethany Anne Lind) is a woman with a traumatic past who has just found herself in a present that may be even worse. After an alteration at the garage at which she works, she’s standing over a dead man with a bloody wrench in her hand. Not keen on getting the local PD involved, she initially decides to dispose of the body. However, a change of heart makes her decide a better course of action would be to return the corpse to his family.

One of the great things about indie cinema is the chance to see actors familiar from supporting roles given the chance to step up, and Bethany Anne Lind (Ozark, Stranger Things) shines as a good woman and devoted mother who is the middle generation of a family that circumstances have driven to criminality. She tries to keep her distance from her father (Will Patton), a corrupt cop, and her son (Jared Ivers) has also been in trouble. Everything in the film hinges on her, and her physical, desperate performance provides much of the story’s propulsive urgency.

Blood on Her NameĀ gives the impression that each draft of the script has steadily stripped away everything extraneous, like wood planed to a smooth finish. There’s barely a single word of dialogue, a gesture, or a glance that doesn’t serve to inch the story forward or broaden our understanding of the character. It’s a pleasurable experience given the recent tendency towards bloat in many releases.

This economy may be partially related to the small budget, but Pope has made a virtue of his limited means. The small number of locations used are the sum of Leigh’s world, and it makes her determination to defend her tiny domain all the more understandable, even when it skews her decision making.

Blood on Her Name has been favourably compared to lean, mean neo-noirs like Jeremy Saulnier‘s Blue Ruin and the Coen brothers‘ classic debut Blood Simple. These are apt touchstones and Pope’s debut is not out of place in this excellent company. There’s also a deep moral streak with themes of culpability and atonement that bring to mind Tommy Lee Jones unjustly overlooked modern western The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

It’s a tremendous lesson for first-time filmmakers. Get the basics right, and the rest will follow. A simple story, compelling and sympathetic protagonist, lithe direction, and a rigorous devotion to the principle of show-don’t-tell all pay off handsomely. Track it down if you can.

Available on VoD from Fri 28 Feb 2019