MESKADA Josh Sternfield's policier about the murder of a child during a botched robbery in a fictional Appalachian county succeeds so long as it could be confused for an RKO product that trades the grit for an abridged version of the Southern-fried lyricism of David Gordon Green and Jeff Nichols. Sternfield eschews whodunit from the opening scene, silently showing the robbers entering a home before returning to the image of a dead boy after the credits sequence. With the killers fingered from the get-go, Sternfield earnestly employs the trappings of the police procedural to chart the ripples outward from the murder: As detective Noah Cordin (Nick Stahl) and his foxy partner (Rachel Nichols) follow the trail back from comparably ritzy Hilliard to his broke-down hometown of Caswell, Cordin sets in motion a countywide moral crisis, fueled on one side by the hysterical mother of the slain boy and the offended rural-bourgeois of Hilliard, and on the other by the poor Caswellians whose plan for reinvigorating the community through the construction of a new power plant is opaquely thrown into peril by the investigation. Though the rural tensions it sheds light on are worth exploring, Sternfield's direction isn't spry enough to handle the abrupt shift in genre when this moves from detective tale to social-problem film, and things bottom out with a town hall meeting tepidly shot as courtroom drama that stops the story's momentum dead in its tracks and leaves Meskada limping through its last half-hour. (Phil Coldiron) (Monica)

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