If you want to see the new Tom Hardy thriller Child 44 based on the 2008 bestselling novel, you’re more apt to find it on the back of a milk carton than in a movie theater.

After the Lionsgate/Summit film opened April 17 to a paltry $622K, and then fell off 67% in its second weekend on the same 510 screens, you can draw a chalk outline around Child 44. With a global gross of just $3.3M worldwide ($1.15M domestic), the film heads into the weekend on only 24 screens. How the hell does that happen to a movie that: is based on a big bestselling book adapted by A-list scribe Richard Price; was helmed by a hot filmmaker in Daniel Espinosa as his followup to the breakout hit Safe House; stars Tom Hardy, on whom Warner Bros is banking its megabudget George Miller-directed revamp Mad Max: Fury Road; had a production budget pegged by insiders as north of $50M? It’s not enough to say Child 44 got crushed by Furious 7; the film got mauled by returnees like Woman in Gold ($22.6M), It Follows ($14.2M) and Ex Machina ($8.3M).

child4You don’t need to be Dick Tracy to solve this murder mystery. When you’ve got spectacularly grim subject matter–a soldier in 1950s Soviet Union tracks a serial murderer of children and runs up against a communist bureaucracy that would not acknowledge such a ghoul could exist in its midst–you need strong critical support. A Rotten Tomatoes score of 23% indicates what a decisive nyet the film received from critics.

Child 44‘s track to the screen futility began in April 2007, when Fox 2000 beat out two other studios to option rights to the Tom Rob Smith novel, as a directing vehicle for Ridley Scott. He dropped out as director, the studio let it go and Lionsgate picked it up, with savvy foreign sales guy Patrick Wachsberger an early booster who saw the potential offshore appeal. But among the troubles listed by insiders was that no strong producer was there to ensure that Espinosa deftly executed what is otherwise a hard sell proposition. Insiders say that Espinosa’s first cut was a WTF five and a half hours long, which might have made it a better bet as a miniseries than a feature. Even after the film was cut down to 137 minutes, an insider said it “still needed 10 minutes of plot clarification” that wasn’t in the finished product. Another complained about the actors’ Russian accents: “Was anyone listening to Tom Hardy’s accent? Or watching how dark the film was? A producer is attentive to these types of things, and I wonder if the director had an ear for English nuance.” Another said that while Scott Free’s Michael Schaefer was busy on a whirlwind of big ticket films Scott did direct–The MartianExodus: Gods and Kings, and The Counselor, production was overseen by Greg Shapiro, brought in as a hired gun. 

Says one insider close to the production, “This needed a Harvey Weinstein, James Schamus, Dana Brunetti or Michael De Luca in the pit and the editing room, hunkering down with the director to make the film less confusing. Someone has to pull the director out of his head and keep the adrenaline going with the distributor. A strong producer was completely missing in action on Child 44.”  

If the average movie now makes the bulk of its money overseas, it would be reasonable to expect that a Russia-set movie like Child 44 should have strong foreign appeal, especially in Russia. Even though the Iron Curtain has fallen and the film depicts arcane policies and bureaucratic stubbornness that date back to 1953, that doesn’t mean Russia had much interest in embracing an unflattering and dark tale. Child 44 was dealt a major blow April 15 when Russian authorities blocked the film’s release. The Ministry of Culture complained about the pic’s “distortion of historic facts and willful interpretation of events … as well as images and characters of Soviet citizens of the period.” While Child 44‘s Russian distrib Central Film Partnership has appealed the ruling, Child 44‘s release in Russia is still uncertain and any momentum has been lost. The majority of the film’s gross has come from the U.K.

44Actors and filmmakers can smell a stinker, and the final blow for Child 44 came when its stars–Hardy, Gary Oldman, and Noomi Rapace–didn’t promote the picture as it was becoming clear it was getting dumped. Hardy and Rapace attended the UK premiere; Espinosa was busy having a baby. While you can affix the toe tag to this movie, Lionsgate won’t lose that much. The film was co-financed by Worldview Entertainment, that on-the-rocks company that is now producing litigation instead of films. Around 70% of the budget was covered through foreign sales, so Wachsberger did his job. An insider ventured that Lionsgate’s exposure could be as small as $4M-$5M, when you factor in the $2.3M Prague tax credit for shooting the film there. The remaining $15M cost was spread among Worldview, Lionsgate and distrib’s Chinese partner Hunan TV.

The real shame here is this: Child 44 becomes another movie with a strong performance by Hardy that doesn’t help build this electric actor into a household name. Sure, he played Bane in the global hit The Dark Knight Rises. But if you look at the actor’s recent resume, it includes such films as the Gavin O’Connor-directed Warrior, the Steven Knight-directed Locke, the John Hillcoat-directed Lawless, the Michael R. Roskam-directed The Drop with James Gandolfini and Rapace, and the Tomas Alfredson-directed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Oldman. Fine movies, with one killer performance after the other–how did Hardy not get an Oscar nomination for Warrior?–but the films were either by design small, or they underperformed.

Given the fast fade of Child 44,  it is probably best for Hardy that he kept his promotional powder dry for Max Max: Fury Road. Hopefully that will be the film that launches his global star. We will find out May 13 when that depiction of apocalyptic road rage opens day and date all over the world. After that comes his mano a mano turn with Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, directed by reigning Oscar winner Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. A teaser trailer unveiled at Cinemacon and it looked incredibly ambitious.