Their fate is in his hands.
The 2013 thriller Roadside is writer/director Eric England’s second film, following 2011’s Madison County (a backwoods slasher I wasn’t crazy about when I originally saw it but have since warmed to considerably). It is finally getting released, however, two years after being shot as his third film, presumably in the wake of the success of Contracted, his actual third movie released in 2013. That means it feels like a step backwards from this second movie, but that was actually his third movie, meaning this one represents a step forwards from his first movie, which really was released as his first movie. It all gets confusing.
A young couple, Dan (Ace Marrero, Chilling Visions: 5 Senses of Fear) and Mindy Summers (Kate Stegeman, Couples Retreat), are on the road traveling to see family at the holidays. They’re not getting along much these days; though Mindy is nine months pregnant, she suspects Dan of cheating with a younger girl and Dan resents the time he has to spend with Mindy’s family. All of that goes out the window, though, when they make an unscheduled stop in the road and are suddenly held hostage by an unseen gunman who threatens to shoot them if they move or try to get help.
Delayed for two years and running 71 minutes before the end credits, Roadside smacks of post-production problems and studio interference. That makes the finished film a bit hard to judge, as one doesn’t want to blame the filmmaker for mistakes of the studio or how the studio responsible for choices made in the writing or directing stages. Maybe this is exactly the movie everyone set out to make in the first place. I suspect it is not.
England is on record as saying his favorite movie of all time is Scream, and the influence of that now classic slasher is all over Roadside — particularly in the voice-only antagonist who torments the couple. Unfortunately, the voice work (credited to Brad Douglas) sounds too trailer voice-y to be truly menacing; it’s never clear if he’s going to kill Dan and Mindy or ask them to come on down and spin the wheel. There are other films that exist in the same sandbox as Roadside, including Phone Booth and last year’s Grand Piano — movies in which characters are being held hostage by gunmen they cannot see and for reasons they don’t understand. It’s a good premise for setting up tension, but only insofar as the characters being threatened have options or have to think their way out of the predicament. Because Dan and Mindy are stuck on the side of the road, there aren’t many opportunities for escape available to them, meaning much of the movie ends up just being a waiting game. When the ending arrives, the film just kind of stops rather than wraps up in a satisfying way; again, this suggests some major conflict in the editing, but we have no way of knowing if that’s really the case.
I’ll give England credit for taking chances and making sure he’s not making the same movie twice, as Roadside is as different from Madison County as Contracted is from both. It’s clear that this is his Hitchcock movie — the opening titles tell us as much — meaning he’s flexing a different set of filmmaking muscles. He’s got the goods but still feels young, like he’s working out who he wants to be as a filmmaker by trying out a lot of different things. Good on him for refusing to be pinned down as just the guy who does this or that.
Roadside is finally available on a no-frills DVD release from RLJ and Image Entertainment. The film is presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen and looks generally good; despite the amount of outdoor night photography, the image doesn’t succumb to crush issues and colors remain stable and natural throughout. The 5.1 surround track handles the dialogue well and makes moderate use of the surround channels to create atmosphere without really going overboard. There are no bonus features — not a trailer, not even subtitles.
As England continues to grow as a filmmaker, I suspect we’ll someday be able to look back at Roadside and see the seeds of what will come to define his body of work. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on — good photography, an intriguing premise, solid performances and a real attempt at building tension — but it doesn’t come together in the end. As a fan of Eric England, I wanted to like the movie more than I did. At least I can give him high marks for the effort.
An interesting misfire.