Lifetime Review: 'Murder in the Vineyard'
A compelling mystery and stellar acting from its main cast raise up this topical Lifetime thriller.
After growing tired of hectic life in the city, Emma Kirk (Helena Mattsson) moves back to her small hometown of Paso Roblar with her teenage daughter Beatrice (Emma Fuhrmann) to revitalize her grandfather's winery and reconnect with Beatrice in the wake of her divorce. As the Kirks get settled into town, things initially seem to be going well for them. Emma reconnects with her old boyfriend Luke (Daniel Hall) as she works on the winery's grand re-opening, Beatrice captures the eye of popular soccer player Bryan Hayes (Matthew Erick White).
But soon, things take a nosedive when Beatrice becomes the target of Bryan's scorned ex-girlfriend April Ferguson (Sarah Pierce), who posts a website dedicated to bashing Beatrice. Things go from bad to worse when Beatrice is drugged and attacked at a party, with humiliating pictures of her going viral. Convinced the assailant is also the mysterious stalker that's been watching Beatrice, Emma works to keep her daughter safe. But with no leads and the police wary to help, Emma is in for a fight as her daughter's predicament grows more dangerous than she could imagine.
Bringing to mind comparisons to Psycho Escort, Murder in the Vineyard appears set on blending Lifetime and Hallmark tropes together into one movie. On the Hallmark side are the romances Emma and Beatrice engage in once they arrive in Paso Roblar (primarily the former's, which fits the Hallmark-familiar "Reunion with A First Love" plot), and the Lifetime side comes on display as Beatrice becomes the victim of cyberbullying and a mysterious stalker. But unlike the flat and monotonously-paced Psycho Escort, Murder in the Vineyard works better as a blending of two vastly different made-for-TV genres, while also crafting an engaging mystery to keep the viewer watching.
While director Craig Goldstein and writer Anne Richardson are both relatively new to the Lifetime scene, the pair (alongside frequent Lifetime/Hallmark producers Stan Spry and Eric Scott Woods) do well at crafting an engaging drama and mystery for Murder in the Vineyard. The movie starts to build intrigue with its effective cold open, which is enhanced by the shifts between peaceful and tense music as the scene jumps between beautiful shots of the titular vineyard and scenes of a girl running for her life. This shift between a calm scene and an intense scene is replicated a few more times throughout Murder in the Vineyard, and are consistently successful at keeping the viewer on edge. The story also moves at a consistent pace, going fast enough to stay thrilling while holding enough back to leave you wondering what's going on in Paso Roblar and who's out to hurt Beatrice.
Murder in the Vineyard juggles a fair amount of plot threads, with all of them being evenly balanced and allowing the viewer to ponder what exactly is motivating Beatrice's tormentor. While the ultimate solution to the mystery turns out to be a simple one, it doesn't take away from the compelling high school drama centering around Beatrice and the performer playing the hidden-in-plain-sight main villain (whose identity I won't spoil) makes their character's turn to sinister villainy a chilling one. Apart from one loose thread that doesn't get resolved--SPOILER ALERT the white-hoodied man who Beatrice sees at the school Spoilers Over-Murder in the Vineyard is strong when it comes to story.
Going into performances and characters, Murder in the Vineyard continues to stay strong barring a few hiccups. Helena Mattsson's Emma makes for a likable protagonist from the start, though her best moments are when Emma begins a fierce campaign to keep Beatrice safe and lashes out at the school and police when they prove ineffective at protecting her daughter. Mattsson throws herself into Emma's pursuit of justice for Beatrice, which is essential to make up for her character's lowest moment of the film: instantly assuming what happened at the party was a result of Beatrice getting drunk. With Beatrice's backstory indicating she's always been a level-headed and responsible girl and Emma's knowledge that Beatrice is being stalked and harassed, you'd think she'd at least consider the possibility that her daughter was drugged. Thankfully, after only a few brief scenes of Emma disregarding and borderline slut-shaming Beatrice, she realizes the truth and apologizes to her daughter.
Emma Fuhrmann is easy to like as the initially upbeat and slightly awkward Beatrice Kirk, and does just as well as playing her dismay at the misfortune that befalls her in Paso Roblar. Fuhrmann also shares chemistry with Matthew Erick White, with White himself bringing palpable emotion to Bryan as he grows closer to and opens up to Beatrice, only to have bullying threaten their relationship. Daniel Covin brings a sleazy sort of charm to Mac Wilson (making it understandable why Bryan would have him as a friend, despite his off-putting behavior), and Sarah Pierce brings layers to her character as the film allows April to develop into something more than a catty mean girl.
Joanna Baron and Jon Root--particularly the former--are appropriately aggravating as the unhelpful Principal Brown and Detective Roberts respectively, and Katie Kelly and Mariah Wesley are effectively charming as Beatrice's fast friends Chloe and Reese. But apart from a heartfelt moment on Chloe's part where she warns Beatrice about the slam site (a scene where Kelly shines in her performance), Chloe and Reese inexplicably drift away from Beatrice as the bullying gets worse--a decision the movie never seems to call them out on. The gem of the side cast would definitely be Daniel Hall as soccer coach and Emma's first love Luke. Hall and Mattsson's chemistry easily makes you believe in their rekindled romance, and Hall himself is effortlessly warm and commanding as Luke falls back in love with Emma and works to combat the toxic culture of harassment going on at the school.
(Dear Hallmark: if you're in the market for a new regular actor, might I recommend Daniel Hall? He certainly has what it takes to become your next Andrew W. Walker or Tyler Hynes)
Murder in the Vineyard's biggest problem has to do with its mystery's solution, as it feels grossly disconnected from the various subplots of the movie and creates a few annoying plot holes. The movie is also notable for some moments of distracting background music/sound, as well as some moments of bizarre camerawork. While I can at least give the movie credit for trying something different, the transition effects on display in these moments still stick out as odd. But with its attention-grabbing drama, strong cast of actors, and its exploration of the hot-button issues surrounding online harassment and sexual assault, Murder in the Vineyard still makes for a highly enjoyable Lifetime drama. And if you're like me and regularly watch both Lifetime and Hallmark, seeing a movie containing tropes from both channels is sure to be fun for you too.
Score: 8 out of 10 polka-dot tea kettles.