It’s not often that I watch a flick that I just can’t make up my mind about; typically, when there’s indecision, it’s regarding whether or not I think it’s just a bad film, or a “so bad, it’s good” film. Every once in a blue moon, however, I come across one that hits me as a well-done film on many levels, yet still has some amorphous something that’s missing, something that I can’t quite put my finger on, something that keeps what is a decent film from being great, or a bad film from being good.
Writer/Director Eric England’s latest film, Roadside, is one such quandary for me, but I’ll get to the particulars as to why as we go along.
Dan and Mindy are headed for Dan’s sister’s home for a Christmas dinner. Twisting along through the rural backroads, we have a little time to learn that Mindy is a trifle shrewish, seeming a bit combative and somewhat paranoid, with very little to say that isn’t veiled in sarcasm. The fact that she’s pregnant may have something to do with it (although it’s a ways in before that’s revealed), but overall she seems a career-oriented woman in general miserable with her life. Her husband initially draws our sympathy, seeming a level-headed and generally nice guy (and he loves dogs, so he must be awesome, right?), but early in the flick we learn that ol’ Dan might not be the cool guy he shows his wife; there’s a possible affair hinted at, and it’s painfully obvious that keeping secrets from Mindy doesn’t bother him much.
After an incident on the dark road with a local redneck playing a pretty vicious game of chicken with the couple, they fill up at a local convenience store. There, the friendly attendant and local forest ranger alleviate their fears, telling them that they know of this local boy, and he’s just having a bad night, having lost his family recently and all. Fearing the bad weather that the ranger warns of, the pair is persuaded by the jolly clerk to purchase a roadside emergency kit before they head off into the night, calling Dan’s sister to tell her they’re about an hour away. Little do they know that said hour will become many, as a madman has lain a trap for our unfortunate pair; when Dan is forced to stop to move a tree from across the road that was obviously placed deliberately, a man with a rifle, hiding in the darkness of the woods, traps him outside of the vehicle. The disembodied voice of the gunman promises Dan that if he gets back in the car, he will die. What follows is a suspenseful game of wits; what does the man want? Why is he doing this? How does he know so much about Dan? Questions abound with precious few answers as the temperature drops to fatal levels and Mindy begins to experience labor pains…
I’m going to start with what impressed me with this flick: off the bat, the cinematography and direction was excellent. Framing, shot composition, the use of the terrain…everything that was selected made the most of what was available to elicit suspense.
I could almost feel the cold of the night air as I stood in the road with Dan, and the scenes with Mindy in the car were claustrophobic and tense. The acting was very solid; with what amounts to a single-location flick with two principal actors, if it isn’t, you’ve got a failure on your hands. Ace Marrero as Dan and Katie Stegeman as Mindy were relatable and real, easily carrying the burden of belief in the film on their combined shoulders. Their chemistry and delivery left no doubt that they were a real couple dealing with real problems, and everything between the two of them was very natural within the limits of the script. What few effects shots there were proved effective and suitably disturbing, although this film relies on suspense as its engine of dread, not expository visuals. There’s a decent twist at the end (although I guessed it just by chance), and I was particularly fond of how the closing credit sequence actually ends the film, telling the audience how the remaining events of this hellish evening play out; pay attention, and you’ll see what I mean.
Now, I suppose you’re expecting me to go into what I didn’t like now, right folks? Well, it’s not that easy. Y’see, I do have issues with this one, but none of them necessarily make it a bad film…but, I’m getting ahead of myself.
A lot of things happen that really push my suspension of disbelief: Why didn’t Dan make a break for the car early on? Why did his family take hours to come looking for them? What happened in the HOURS depicted by the title cards between bouts of odd conversation with the psycho? Beyond that, how did the lunatic know so much about Dan and his extramarital activity? Also, the nutjob in the woods does a couple of things that just didn’t make a lick of sense in any capacity, but I can’t go into detail without spoiling the flick. The most jarring thing about the film is the conversation between Dan and the faceless gunman; there’s an awful lot of just…odd exchanges between the two men, sounding at times like a trip to an analyst. Add to that the fact that, although they’re separated by an undetermined distance, the two of them speak in casual, conversational tones most of the time, as though they were standing within arm’s length of each other; yet Mindy, seated in a car some fifteen to twenty feet away, hears absolutely nothing. The capper on all of this is the voice of the unseen man itself; it’s not fearsome, it’s not evil-sounding. That by itself isn’t terrible; maybe the intent is that the voice of impending death is supposed to calm and cool, I don’t know; in this case, he sounded like a local television anchor or cable game-show host. His vernacular and delivery was too well-enunciated, too manicured; it just didn’t seem to fit to me.
My final summation is that Roadside is not a bad flick; it’s just not a great one. The obvious nods to Hitchcockian suspense (note the credit sequences; you’ll be reminded of both Psycho and North By Northwest) are there, and there are a lot of times that said suspense is expertly touched upon. In this isolated setting, however, there’s only so much you can do with the story, and it tends to be a little too long with too many unanswered questions for me. My feeling is that this tale would have been much more effective as a thirty-to-forty minute short…but what do I know?
That’s my two.
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