Overview: Two brothers find themselves trapped in a decrepit town populated by cannibals. XLrator Media; 2016; Not Yet Rated; 86 minutes.
How Thoughtful: I suppose I should thank Chris von Hoffmann. Recapping the plot is always the most tedious, uninvolved, and boring part of film criticism. But with Drifter, von Hoffman has given us a film that can literally be summarized in one sentence: two brothers get trapped in a post-apocalyptic town in the desert; get attacked by hillbilly cannibals. There isn’t much more to Drifter, a film that foregrounds style and intensity in the place of coherency and originality. And in fairness, the film is visually remarkable. There’s rarely a shot that doesn’t feel meticulously framed and viscerally beautiful—at least until the last third of the film which takes place almost entirely in poorly lit rooms in a run-down house. The first half takes broad visual cues from George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), complete with daytime desert wastes that stretch to infinity to nighttime roadside pit stops where everything is a different shade of vibrant neon blue. The second half steals the roadkill chic look wholesale from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), though it waters it down considerably. The film takes place in a post-apocalyptic world—at least we assume it does. Though visually the film borrows from Fury Road, it trades in 1979 Mad Max world-building: it’s post-apocalyptic only because it says so. With the exceptions of a few off-hand remarks about how the two protagonists have a car “that works” and the aforementioned cadre of viscera-smeared cannibals, one could be forgiven for mistaking the protagonists for having driven into a town hit particularly hard by the Great Recession.
Somebody Tell a Joke!!: Drifter is, quite honestly, a preposterous film with no business taking itself as seriously as it does. The whole ordeal feels like one of those horror film compilations from the early days of YouTube where people would edit together reels of the goriest or most entertaining clips from famous movies. To put it more bluntly, it feels like it tried to be made up of nothing but “the good parts” from other films. It occasionally almost works, such as the opening scene which begins mid-heist with one of the brothers holding a store-owner at gunpoint. But mostly the overall effect is that of a film with all the connective tissue cut out, saving one or two exposition dumps delivered with the grace of a grand piano dropped from a skyscraper. Perhaps if the film had fun with its silliness, it could have been enjoyably bad. But the film’s maudlin intensity saps all possible ironic pleasure.
Consider two of the hillbillies: Sasha (Rebecca Fraiser) and Doyle (James McCabe). Sasha is a lunatic Gothic nymphomaniac with a thick Southern drawl. Her whole shtick is that she talks and acts like a hyper-sexualized little girl—right down to her coquettish pouting and pigtails—who turns psycho at the drop of a hat, at least not when she’s having the kind of PG-13 sex where neither party bothers taking off their pants. Doyle, the leader of the hillbillies, is only a few degrees removed from a homicidal Truman Capote, mincing each of his lines like he was gently getting his prostate examined. The most ridiculous scene in the film sees Doyle give the brothers a big, dramatic speech about how he went crazy as a child and murdered his mother after she forced him to wash his mouth out with soap for cursing. It felt like a combination of Heath Ledger’s monologues about how “he got these scars” as the Joker and the soap poisoning fantasy from Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story (1983). I spent the entire speech laughing at it. The problem: it wasn’t meant to be funny. Neither was Sasha, for that matter. Both characters were supposed to come off as scary and disturbing. But instead they felt ludicrous—and not in a fun way.
Overall: The same could be said for all of Drifter. It’s too technically proficient to be dismissed as garbage, but it’s too serious to be enjoyed as camp. It occupies the perfect sweet spot of terribleness. I actually do hope that von Hoffman makes more movies—as a technician he seems promising. But he needs a new screenwriter and perhaps an overbearing producer to help keep him focused and organized.
Featured Image: XLrator Media