Nicolas Cage is making so many mid-budget films that it’s a wonder he had enough time off before turning up on the Utah set of this noirish mood piece to grow the full beard he sports – along with specs that give him a mild-mannered yet creepy look – for the lead role.
It opens with expansive driving-through-the-desert shots as Ray (Cage) and his wife Maggie (Robin Tunney) leave behind a recent trauma – the somewhat overworked plot device of a just-dead child, with a cocktail of substance abuse, drunkenness and infidelity thrown in – to start over again as the owners of the fairly seedy Motorway Motel, which they have seemingly bought on impulse from the shadowy, and now hard-to-contact Ben ((Bill Bolender). Ray soon runs into the place’s regulars – including a horny truck driver (Ernie Lively) and the local lesbian dominatrix (Kassia Conway) – and other suspicious characters, including some loiterers who pull pranks like dropping a dead pig in the swimming pool and splashing the place with red paint. Another frequent drop-in is garrulous, coffee-mooching cop Howard (Mark Blucas), who doesn’t seem that concerned about a couple of unexplained corpses on his patch but is interested in finding out where Ben’s fled to. While having an off-and-on thing with his wife, Ray pokes around the place and discovers the previous owner had set up a secret tunnel to the popular-with-pervs Cabin No. 10 and has a two-way mirror installed for peeping purposes. A masked killer also shows up briefly, as if tipped into the slow-burning Jerry Rapp-Matthew Wilder script to add some incident to the simmering first half.
Director Tim Hunter made an impression in 1986 with River’s Edge and has occasional subsequent feature credits, but has been busiest with high-end TV (Twin Peaks, Homicide Life on the Street, Mad Men, Dexter, Deadwood, Hannibal) – this shows he’s still good at uncomfortable rural creepiness, since the slim plot keeps pausing for well-acted sequences in which Nicolas Cage is given various kinds of hard time by other folks. Like other well-known go-for-broke performers – Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Anthony Hopkins – Cage also knows how to turn it down and play repressed, downtrodden, unemotional characters who don’t freak out till late in the day (when he does get to pistolwhip a big guy in a bar). This may be an ordinary little thriller, seemingly modelled on the dozens of similar items that came out as direct-to-rental items in the VHS era, but Cage doesn’t walk through it – and, though the part isn’t as substantial as it might be, the currently underused Robin Tunney steps up in her scenes to bring some depth to a drama which keeps panning away from her. As a mystery, it’s elementary – with a last-reel twist that’ll be no surprise at all to anyone who’s ever watched a made-for-TV whodunit – but there are some understated eccentricities, with perennial bit-player Bolender especially vivid in a cameo as the paranoid weirdo who drives the story engine. The climax, of course, involves a through-the-mirror jump.