Road Games Dir. Abner Pastoll

[IFC Films; 2016]

Styles: thriller
Others: Spring, High Tension, The Hitcher

It’s important to stick the landing. When those end credits roll, if the finale of the film is unsatisfying, it will force viewers to reflect on all that has come before with an equally unsatisfying filter. Woe unto any filmmaker whose film is predicated on a twist ending, then, for they must truly earn that twist to elicit a mindblown reaction from the audience and not simply a “wait, what?” Unfortunately, Abner Pastoll’s film Road Games is completely undone when it fails to stick that landing. Instead of leaving us reeling from the twist, moviegoers will just cock their heads to the side, let down by all of the nonsensical hoops the plot had to jump through to get there. It’s a a shame because, before that final act reveal, Pastoll has created an interesting and unique film that is beautifully shot, well acted, and cleverly deals with failures of communication.

Jack (Andrew Simpson) is stuck in the French countryside after a trip down the coast has gone awry in some mysterious fashion. He’s hitchhiking back to England, without any luggage and a very weak understanding of the French language, when he comes upon Véronique (Joséphine de La Baume). The two of them attempt to find a ride, while tales of a serial killer stalking the very roads they are on follow them on their journey. Eventually they are given refuge by a couple (Frédéric Pierrot and Barbara Crampton) who seem a bit unhinged. Can the two escape with their sanity and lives intact? And just who is the mysterious killer that casts a shadow over this idyllic area?

Eben Bolter’s cinematography is amazing to look at in Road Games, excellently capturing both the beauty and the menace that arises from the isolated nature of the French countryside. Wide vistas are terrifically photographed and furtive inserts amp up the tension and mystery as to who the killer could be (including the erstwhile protagonist, Jack). That same sense of mystery and foreboding is brought in to the acting by all assembled, at once playing it very straight but also close to the vest to keep viewers guessing about motives and backstory of each of the characters. There’s a real sense of danger and torment lurking behind the eyes of the four main characters. Of particular note is Barbara Crampton as the seemingly dazed and troubled half of a manic-depressive pairing. This career resurgence of hers as a matronly figure (You’re Next, We Are Still Here) is welcome, and she does excellent work with the material to make Mary seem unusually saddened and tortured by the mere presence of outsiders in her home.

Pastoll handles Jack’s limited understanding of the French language well. By creating a bilingual film (with subtitles), the director underlines how out of his element Jack is and how easy it is for confusion to arise in these situations. Notably, viewers are able to learn more about the characters than the film’s protagonist does, but we still identify with his complete lack of understanding. It’s a clever move that works on a few levels while adding to the tension of the mystery.

Unfortunately, these positives are undercut by a ridiculous ending that requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, and some other plot elements that simply don’t make sense and exist simply to misdirect the audience. The naturalism on display in the cinematography and the acting doesn’t translate to the plotting of Road Games and that is a huge disappointment. Instead of viewers being enthralled by what they just witnessed, they’ll simply revisit the film in their heads and poke holes in all of the places where the logic of the film became threadbare and exists solely for the purpose of pulling off a twist.

The mystery box is a huge gamble for a filmmaker. If it pays off, it pays off big and they’ve successfully rewired the brain of the audience. Viewers will want to go back to the film again and again to piece together clues and see where the tonal shifts come in. But if it misfires, as it does with Road Games, it undermines everything that has come before it and forces the script into an awkward, misshapen thing that forces scenes to serve the twist rather than have it naturally occur. It’s a pity, as so much of Road Games works so well to have it kind of fall limply apart in the end. It’s beautiful to look at, with a game cast that brings everything to their ambiguous parts, and is populated by interesting ideas of cultural misunderstanding, but is ultimately undone by its complete lack of being able to stick that landing.

Most Read