My notes on Chris Smith’s road movie noir.
Writer director Christopher Smith – whose eclectic genre fare includes Creep,Severance, Triangle and Black Death – owns up to copping the title of his sunny contemporary noir from Edgar G. Ulmer’s poverty row masterpiece by showing an excerpt of that fatalistic road movie on a bigscreen TV … whether his protagonists are similarly doomed is slightly up for debate, as is what exactly happens in the film (one major review outlet advances a theory that seems to misread a back-and-forth structure as a Sliding Doors-type parallel worlds scenario). Callow prettyboy California law student Harper (Tye Sheridan) is miserable because his Mom is in a coma after a car crash and he suspects his stepdad Vincent (Stephen Moyer) has forged her signature on a will to grab her estate and is fooling around in Las Vegas with someone called Rosie Hills (or has a real estate development called Rosy Hills or something). After a major row, he asks his stoner pal Paul (Jared Abrahamson) for drugs he can plant in Vincent’s luggage to get him in trouble – only to get liquid acid instead of weed (which comes in handy later).
In a bar, getting drunk and wretched, he overhears tattooed thug-type short-fused pimp Johnny Ray (Emory Cohen, unrecognisable from his clean-cut turn in The OA) ranting at recently-cut, cowed hooker Cherry (Bel Powley) and gets into an edgy, uneasy drinking/bragging session which flirts with a Strangers on a Train crime-swap setup … the next morning, a hungover Harper is roused by Johnny and Cherry, who are happy to go on a road trip to Vegas, where something bad will be done to Vincent as Harper arranged then forgot about. The trio have adventures on the road, including encounters with a slightly overbearing cop (Gbenga Akinnagbe) modelled on the guy in the trunk in Thelma and Louise and killer pimp boss Frank (John Lynch) who might be named after Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, checking off key modern noir/road influences. Interleaved are Harper’s emerging memories of what went down the night before – between leaving the bar and waking up – which rather undermine his need to take further action against Vincent, not that this is going to impress Johnny – who needs Harper’s cash to pay off Frank, who might be willing to take Cherry to settle the debt. The intersection of memories and forward momentum isn’t quite as slick as it might be – and a few pieces of the jigsaw (like Rosie Hills) seem to get left out of the picture by the finale.
Like Cheap Thrills, this is a noirish guy-walks-into-a-bar tale – it’s not as tight and focused as that, but it similarly plays with American class distinctions as Harper doles out cash and Johnny simmers with resentment. Performances are good, with Powley struggling to make yet another battered blonde – the reference here is True Romance – more than just a token figure. A key moment comes when a guilty party is on the point of leaving the girl behind and explains why with ‘because I’ll get caught’, admitting to a true noir fatalism that is then slightly undermined by a happier, if provisional, ending than the build-up suggests will come down the pike.