Sunday, April 30, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: DETOUR (2017) and MEAN DREAMS (2017)

(UK/UAE - 2017)

About a decade ago, British filmmaker Christopher Smith seemed to be establishing himself as a promising genre figure with the subway tunnel horror flick CREEP (2005), the office-team-building-retreat slasher film SEVERANCE (2006), the lost-at-sea mindfuck TRIANGLE (2009), and the medieval witchcraft saga BLACK DEATH (2011). Smith was building some momentum (SEVERANCE and TRIANGLE quickly found cult followings, and the excellent BLACK DEATH got some critical acclaim), but things sort-of sputtered out for him. He seemed to settle into hired-gun mode with the 2012 miniseries LABYRINTH, based on the Kate Mosse novel. LABYRINTH wasn't seen in the US until it aired on the CW in 2014, and he followed that with an unexpected departure in the barely-released 2014 family comedy GET SANTA, the biggest outlier in his filmography so far. The modern-day noir DETOUR is a return to form of sorts for writer/director Smith. He gets to play with time and linear structure a bit and he explores themes of doppelgangers that figured so prominently in TRIANGLE. And he allows himself some room to show off a little by throwing in some obvious split-screen shout-outs to Brian De Palma. For a while, Smith gets dangerously close to making DETOUR a little too smug and cute for its own good, right down to main character Harper (Tye Sheridan, grown up a bit since JOE and MUD) having a poster for the 1966 Paul Newman movie HARPER on his bedroom wall and later seen watching Edgar G. Ulmer's 1945 Poverty Row cheapie classic DETOUR on TV.

But just when you're about to justifiably give up, Smith talks you off the ledge and DETOUR's gimmicky structure actually starts showing a purpose, and the characters have a lot more going on under the surface. The film gets better as it goes along, really reaching its stride in the second act before the third, where it doesn't quite fizzle out but offers one improbable plot twist too many. Harper is a rich California college kid whose mother is in a coma after a car accident and whose stepdad Vincent (Stephen Moyer) seems to already have a mistress and is counting the days until his wife finally dies. Out drinking at a shithole bar in a rough part of town, Harper makes the acquaintance of Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen of THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES), an abusive, bullying psychopath with a long-suffering stripper girlfriend named Cherry (Bel Powley of THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL). Drunk Harper talks about hypothetically paying Johnny $20,000 to follow Vincent to Vegas and kill him. He's understandably caught by surprise when Johnny and Cherry turn up at his front door the next morning ready to hit the road and whack his stepfather. Harper tries to reason with Johnny but Johnny's the kind of unstable lunatic who's always looking for a fight, won't take no for an answer and no matter what you say, it's wrong ("You wanna fuck her?" Johnny asks Harper about Cherry. Harper: "No!" Johnny: "What, you think she's ugly?"). At this point, Smith breaks the film into two diverging narratives--one showing Harper, Johnny, and Cherry heading to Vegas to kill Vincent and a second where Harper turns his back and Johnny and goes back into his house, choosing to confront Vincent himself. Both narratives head in unexpected directions that keep DETOUR consistently interesting before settling into a more conventional mode for the finale. There's some nice twists involving the characters and their motivations, and Irish actor John Lynch (Shades in Richard Stanley's 1990 masterpiece HARDWARE) has a memorable turn channeling GANGS OF NEW YORK-style Daniel Day-Lewis as an enraged pimp to whom Johnny owes $50K under the threat of taking Cherry away from him and selling her to a guy who'll keep her locked up and "use her for a hillbilly fuck-mat." Cape Town and other South African locations don't really convince as stand-ins for California or Nevada, but despite that and a few other missteps, DETOUR is a not-bad little thriller that fits nicely into the Smith oeuvre and should find some admirers on Blu-ray and streaming. Magnet released this on VOD and on five screens in the US to an abysmal opening weekend gross of $145. (R, 97 mins)

(Canada/US - 2017)

There's a bit of a Terrence Malick-circa-BADLANDS vibe to this Canadian thriller shot in Sault Ste. Marie and set in the rural outskirts of upper peninsula Michigan. It's not just in its quiet opening shots of character walking through a cornfield, but in its tried-and-true lovers-on-the-run scenario. That sense of serene calm doesn't last long as young high-school dropout Jonas Ford (Josh Wiggins of MAX) toils in the fields on his family's on-life-support farm, dealing with an embittered dad (Joe Cobden) and an alcoholic mom (Vickie Papavs). He finally finds some light in his dark existence when he meets Casey Caraway (Sophie Nelisse of THE BOOK THIEF), a teenage girl who moved into the next house down the road with her widower father Wayne (the late Bill Paxton, in his next-to-last film), who's just been hired as a new cop in town. Wayne objects to all the time Casey's been spending with Jonas and makes it clear he's not welcome anymore, but things really escalate when Jonas, who has seen Wayne hiding a duffel bag full of drugs in his garage, intervenes when he catches Wayne beating Casey. Jonas goes to the police chief (Colm Feore), who completely blows him off, and ends up on an unintended ride-along after breaking into Wayne's garage and hiding under the tonneau cover of his truck bed as Wayne drives off for a meet with some dealers, kills them, and keeps the drugs and the money for himself. Through not the most plausible means, Jonas manages to get away with the money and takes off with Casey, with an enraged Wayne not far behind.

The script by Kevin Coughlin and Ryan Grassby doesn't offer much in the way of surprises, but director Nathan Morlando (CITIZEN GANGSTER) really establishes a moody, downbeat atmosphere of rural despair that gives its lovestruck heroes sufficient reason to impulsively run away. The romance moves a little too quickly and Jonas blows right by some red flags ("Do you lie a lot?" he asks, to which Casey replies "All the time"), and it has moments that strain credulity, like Jonas getting a nasty cut in his abdomen and Casey stitching it up and disinfecting it after robbing a pharmacy at gunpoint. The choking feeling of desperation and needing to get as far away as possible is made somewhat more plausible by Paxton's vicious performance as an all-around bad guy (his very presence in this is a shout-out to the 1992 cult movie ONE FALSE MOVE and 1998's A SIMPLE PLAN), easily one of the most despicable characters the beloved actor was ever tasked with playing. MEAN DREAMS doesn't have an original thought in its head, but it's well-made, Wiggins and Nelisse are appealing young stars, and Paxton always made anything better just by being in it. He'll be missed. (R, 105 mins)

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