FBI agent Griff Krenshaw is dispatched to solve a murder at a federal correctional facility for inmates with a rare genetic defect that leads to psychosis and violence. Once there, Griff becomes convinced that the facility is plagued by a much darker force
Perhaps the greatest strength of science fiction is it’s ability to discuss big ideas. Philosophy, theology, politics, sociology, and society. We’re able to present possibly controversial subjects in a crowd-pleasing way because we use the veneer of sci-fi. The audience doesn’t realize it’s being challenged because they’re so wrapped up in the story. This, of course, is nothing new. The ancient Greeks knew this, too. So did Mark Twain. There’s a direct lineage from Odysseus to Huckleberry Finn to Captain Kirk.
“The Evil Gene” is a successor to this long line of storytelling. In it’s short timeframe, it delves into free will, criminal justice reform, and the nature of evil, among other things. Whether it succeeds as storytelling or as social commentary is up for debate.
The film starts with a very effective cold open of a madman in a straightjacket. We don’t know what he did to get to this point. Through some exposition, we come to learn that in the near future, scientists have isolated an “evil gene.” Anyone that possesses it is liable to do horrible things. We then cut to FBI agent Griff Krenshaw, played by Richard Speight, Jr. Griff has just been involved in a controversial shooting while on the job. In order to give him a less demanding post, he’s sent to a psychiatric facility where prisoners with the evil gene are being tested upon. His mission is to find out if the head shrink’s recent suicide is what is seems to be.
When Griff gets there, he’s caught in a turf war between the warden and the new head of the project, Dr. Dana Ehrhart, played by Cameron Richardson. As our hero tries to put together the pieces of the case, he’s torn between Dr. Ehrhart’s desire to continue the experiments, and the warden’s wish for order. Griff’s own past and issues with PTSD will not help matters.
“The Evil Gene” is a tough nut to crack. As I watched, one moment I would be entranced, and the next I would be bored. I’m inclined to give it a favorable rating, because it has such high ambitions, but we need to first discuss the film’s flaws.
For one thing, the central mystery of the project leader’s suicide is fairly easy to figure out. As far as the basics of the plot are concerned, there are no real surprises. This is an even bigger problem than normal because the filmmakers expect us to get caught up in the “who done it?” That seems foolish when the film has so much more interesting things to discuss.
The biggest problem with this film is the wasted potential. “The Evil Gene” touches on so many issues facing us today. Politics vs. science. Religion vs. psychology. The individual vs. society. The role of the police in our lives. Basic civil liberties. I was disappointed that the filmmakers wanted me to care about a police procedural. I wish it had followed through on its ambition.
However, there is a lot to like as well. Director Kathryn Taylor shows she’s a master of atmosphere. The prison is sufficiently claustrophobic. The film hardly leaves the facility, and that is to its credit. You feel you are as stuck there as the prisoners.
Also, Griff’s personal journey from straight-laced G-man to unhinged is well presented. Where the film fails as a mystery, it works as a character study. Indeed, the acting is excellent from top to bottom. I think especially of Lindsey Ginter as the Warden and Ted Heyck as the prison chaplain. It must be hard saving souls in a world that has disproven free will.
Which brings me back to my biggest issue with the film. It’s boiling over with big ideas, but lacks the follow-through. That being said, I’m very impressed with Ms. Taylor on her first outing as writer, producer, and director. I hope she builds on this. When her next feature comes out, I’ll be there with bells on.