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Things should be going well for Allison Palmer (Kristen Dalton). In addition to having a loving husband and daughter in Jim (Mark Collier) and Sydney (AlexAnn Hopkins), a recent promotion promises her and her family a move to New York City. It would all be perfect—if it weren't for Jim's mother Claire (Barbara Williams). Ever since she could remember, Allison has gotten the sense that Claire never accepted Allison as Jim's wife or her daughter-in-law, leaving the women's relationship tense.
Soon after announcing their upcoming move to Claire, she reveals that her husband and Jim's father Bruce (John Sanderford) has abruptly left her for another woman, leading Jim to invite his heartbroken mother to stay with them. Soon after making herself at home, Allison sees Claire's insults towards her becoming much more frequent and blatant, leaving her frustrated as Jim and Sydney fail to see past Claire's mask of a crestfallen mother and grandmother. Allison quickly decides she won't lose her family to her mother-in-law... but little does she know that Claire is far more dangerous than she realizes, and will stop at nothing to keep her son and granddaughter to herself.
From reading that plot synopsis, Lifetime regulars can be forgiven for believing Murder In Law for being a rip-off of Lifetime's similarly titled films Psycho In-Law and Psycho Mother-in-Law, both of which are also films concerning women combating overbearingly controlling mother-in-laws. But despite the similarities, Murder In Law stands out as an intense film with a strong dynamic between its main heroine and villainess that keeps the viewer engaged and waiting to see how the plot unfolds.
Tone-wise, Murder In Law more closely resembles Psycho Mother-in-Law, with the film using music effectively in several moments to create a genuine feeling of tension and suspense. An effective moment comes in the form of intense music playing over what should be an innocuous family dinner, but the music (as well as great facial acting from Barbara Williams and Kristen Dalton) makes it clear that a storm has brewed between the women, with consequences that could prove deadly.
Speaking of Williams and Dalton, Murder In Law could not ask for a better pair to be working off each other. From the moment they're shown together, it becomes clear that the two have been estranged for a while, with both women making that tension feel authentic and strong. As the film progresses, this mere string of disagreements evolves into an all-out battle of wills, with Williams and Dalton making the transition feel natural.
As for their individual performances, Dalton makes Allison a strong-willed and determined wife and mother, making it clear to Claire from Day One (even if in understated ways) that she would not roll over and take her condescending disrespect, nor would she allow her to turn her family against her or let Jim off the hook for kowtowing to his mother and allowing Claire to demean her. When things ultimately go from bad to worse for Allison, Dalton allows for her to become vulnerable and scared as a result while still allowing her to maintain a flame of strength in her bleakest hour. Meanwhile, while she at times allows Claire's insults and manipulation cross the line into cheesy overacting, Williams overall gives Claire an authentic transition from a catty in-law to a crafty, self-centered psychopath willing to destroy anyone who gets in the way of having her son all to herself, with her arrogance and ability to mask her true nature from almost everyone makes her the perfect Love to Hate villainess.
Angie DeGrazia shares in Dalton's independent fierceness as Allison's friend Charlie, while also sharing a poignant scene with Dalton when Claire drags Charlie into her vicious scheme. AlexAnn Hopkins brings emotional depth to Sydney, and Tony Denison is compelling as Claire's lovestruck friend Will, whose affections Claire goes on to use to her advantage. Marlon Aquino also appears in a small role as Charlie's poolboy Bradley, injecting charm into his minor role as well as providing eye candy for viewers.
A more polarizing character, however, comes in the form of Mark Collier as Jim Palmer. While there's nothing wrong with Collier's performance, Jim spends a great deal of the film either oblivious or uncaring to his mother's blatant disrespect towards his wife. The ease of which Claire is able to turn Jim against Allison is also alarming, and Jim's continuous attempts to defend his mother's behavior makes Jim appear absurdly naive. While he ultimately begins to turn himself around in the end, it's really not until the film's climax that he finally sees his mother for what she really is--after the damage has already been done. Collier does what he can to keep Jim likable, but ultimately, Jim's inaction and excuses for his mother make it hard for him to endear himself to the audience or (by extension) root for him to redeem himself to Allison.
Despite the aforementioned hiccup with Jim, Murder In Law is a well-casted drama with tension, strong leads, and a climax that keeps you guessing on how it's all going to end. If you're in need of a high-octane shot of drama and were a fan of Lifetime's other movies about crazy in-laws, Murder In Law is right up your alley.
Score: 9 out of 10 leprechaun statuettes.