Advertisement

‘Desert Road’ Review: Horror Meets Sci-Fi In A Ghost Story With Soul – SXSW

The real story begins long before you know it in Desert Road, a very smart, trippy chiller that plays with the conventions of survival horror and takes them in a wholly unexpected and, ultimately, really quite moving direction. Making her directorial debut, Shannon Triplett shows a sophisticated grasp of genre dynamics, with a bold use of space — a stretch of the Mojave Desert doubling for Death Valley — that proves more and more gripping as the film’s mysteries unfold. At which point, its boundaries begin to blur, slipping between horror and sci-fi in a way that recalls a hypnotic blend of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s The Endless and Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls.

The woman in question is Clare Devoir (Kristine Froseth), a twentysomething photographer who is throwing in the towel after too many disappointments as a struggling artist in Los Angeles. Clare is driving home to her mother’s place in Iowa when she stops off at a remote gas station to fill up on gas and use the restroom. Its pasty-faced attendant, the Norman Bates-like Randy (Max Mattern), is on edge, and his awkward attempts at conversation make Clare uncomfortable, to the extent that she fabricates a boyfriend who is sleeping on the back seat, a lie that will soon be embarrassingly revealed.

More from Deadline

Leaving the gas station, Clare is a few hundred yards down the road, chatting to her mother, when a strange text message demanding “Call this number” distracts her. Her car seems to blow a tire, and the car ends up stuck on a rock at the side of the road. Woozy with shock, Clare is forced to head back to the gas station and call someone named Steve, the driver of the only tow truck in town, paying for the service in advance over her cellphone. While waiting for it to come, Clare walks round the area, which seems to consist of nothing but hills and a disused factory.

Returning to her car, Clare realizes her camera has been stolen. At the gas station, Randy denies all knowledge of it, muttering darkly about “people that live in the desert.” A few moments later, Clare’s bank card is declined; Clare decides she has been scammed by Randy, in league with the elusive Steve. Or has she been roofied with a spiked soda? Or is she just concussed in the aftermath of the crash?

Various theories start to roll around in Clare’s head as she strides off on foot, setting the scene for a traditional horror in which this urban but not terribly streetwise woman is at the mercy of a backwater conspiracy. Instead, Clare finds herself back at the car, and no matter which way she heads — left or right, up or down — she is caught in a loop between the car, the gas station and the factory.

From here, objective truth goes out the window, and Clare’s world becomes a dizzying matryoshka, a complex nest of parallel realities that cut backwards and forwards through time, finally giving us the real reason why Randy has been so anxious all this time. (“You’re not real!” he screams at Clare shortly before the big reveal. “How can you use a phone?”) In the meantime, Clare becomes fascinated by an old woman who lives in the hills, a ghostly figure who recalls Grandma Death in Donnie Darko, a similar film about time and destiny.

There’s a lot here to take in on one viewing, but a cult audience surely awaits this compelling, Primer-like puzzler. For a first-timer, Triplett shows flair and confidence with a very tricky concept, but Froseth deserves credit too, for bringing humanity into what could very easily been a cold, mathematical exercise.

Title: Desert Road
Festival: SXSW (Narrative Spotlight)
Director/screenwriter: Shannon Triplett
Cast: Kristine Froseth, Frances Fisher, Beau Bridges, Ryan Hurst, D.B. Woodside, Max Mattern, Rachel Dratch, Edwin Garcia II
Sales agents: UTA, CAA
Running time: 1 hr 30 min

Best of Deadline

Sign up for Deadline's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.