Sunday, April 14, 2024

“DESERT ROAD”

THE STORY – A woman crashes her car and walks down the road for help – only to find no matter which way she walks she ends up back at her crashed car again.

THE CAST – Beau Bridges, Frances Fisher, Kristine Froseth, Edwin Garcia II, Ryan Hurst, Max Mattern, & D.B. Woodside

THE TEAM – Shannon Triplett (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 90 Minutes


The setup is straight out of an episode of “The Twilight Zone” (or possibly “Doctor Who”): A young woman (Kristine Froseth), driving alone from Los Angeles to her home in the Midwest, crashes her car in the middle of nowhere. She goes to get help but finds that no matter which direction she walks, she ends up back at her car. Workers hurriedly leaving a nearby factory threaten her when she tries to get a ride, and the creepily awkward attendant at the nearby gas station seems to be running a scam to get her in bed. As night falls and a mysterious figure appears in the distance, the young woman starts to fear for her life. Will she be able to figure out what’s going on and escape her predicament?

“Desert Road” marks the feature debut of writer-director Shannon Triplett, who previously worked in visual effects. While there is little trace of VFX work in this film, Triplett’s assured visual sensibility helps provide clarity to her twisty screenplay. As our heroine slowly pieces together what’s going on, tiny visual cues from earlier in the film become important, and each one lands with the intended force, regardless of how fleeting they seemed when they first appeared. The story’s internal logic is complex, but it’s understandable, thanks to Triplett’s clarity with visual language. Triplett’s puzzle box is so ingeniously constructed that even though you probably could figure out what’s going on before it’s revealed, the solution is so original that it’s highly unlikely. The process is fun no matter when you figure it out, and watching our heroine use skills and resourcefulness she didn’t even know she had at the start makes the film an extremely satisfying watch.

However, the plot will only get a film so far, and our heroine’s emotional journey is perhaps even more critical to the film’s success than the puzzle she must solve. As the young woman at the film’s center, Froseth makes good on the promise she has shown in previous projects like Lena Dunham’s “Sharp Stick” and YA adaptation “Looking for Alaska.” She’s a charismatic everywoman, as watchable when thinking as when fighting for her life. Froseth displays impressive range; her meekness at the film’s start deepens to bone-deep despair and fierce fortitude as she tries and fails repeatedly to find a way back to life. Through phone conversations with her mother (Rachel Dratch), we learn that she’s a struggling photographer whose confidence has been almost destroyed by life. Her desert odyssey forces her to dig deep to survive, and she finds strength in surprising places. Froseth invests the young woman with a world-weariness that belies her youth but adds depth to the character, especially at the beginning.

The film’s first act unfurls at a surprisingly unhurried pace for a thriller, taking nearly a third of the total running time to establish character and place before getting to the core of the premise. This can make the film a bit tough to get into as the audience is waiting for the plot to kick into high gear. But Triplett knows that the audience needs to build a connection to her protagonist if they’re going to root for her, and the extra time she takes in the first act reaps the rewards down the line. Even though “Desert Road” isn’t exactly fast-paced, the plot is involving, and watching the protagonist come up with ever more inventive, clever ways to escape her situation makes for compelling viewing. Once she finally figures out what she needs to do, the film shifts into overdrive for an exciting, emotionally resonant climax that pays off every single seed planted throughout the film’s first two-thirds. Triplett’s premise may not be the most original, but she takes the road less traveled with it, and that ends up making all the difference.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Kristine Froseth levels up her game as an intelligent, resourceful young woman trapped in space-time in Shannon Triplett's clever, minimalist thriller.

THE BAD - The pacing could use some juice, especially in the beginning.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Kristine Froseth levels up her game as an intelligent, resourceful young woman trapped in space-time in Shannon Triplett's clever, minimalist thriller.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The pacing could use some juice, especially in the beginning.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"DESERT ROAD"