road games coverA twisty tease of a thriller can work effectively if it plays fair with the audience. Road Games does just that, playing right into expectations and then defying them. The familiar and unexpected are conjoined in British writer-director Abner Pastoll’s thriller that playfully keeps you guessing who has been holding the knife. The film has tricks up its sleeve not seen coming a mile away, even if they might not stand up to close scrutiny in retrospect, but Road Games is as deceptively constructed as it is compelling.

Down south and now walking through the French countryside, British bloke Jack (Andrew Simpson) is just trying to get home to England. He tries hitchhiking, but no one will give him a ride since there’s a serial killer out there who finds his or her victims on the road. On his trek, he runs into a carefree French woman, Véronique (Joséphine de La Baume), who gets thrown out of a car after an argument with a boyfriend. After skinny-dipping and getting a little closer as traveling companions, Jack and Véronique finally get a ride from a man named Grizard (Frédéric Pierrot), who insists they come for dinner and stay the night in his rural home. Véronique is a little cautious about taking this stranger up on his offer, but once they arrive, Grizard’s artist American wife Mary (Barbara Crampton) immediately takes a liking to Jack since he speaks English. Of the four suspects, who will reveal him/herself/themselves as a killer or killers?

As soon as Road Games begins, the viewer is a witness to the alluded dismemberment and burial of a body. Beyond there being a killer out there, nothing is what it seems; that much is clear. Writer-director Abner Pastoll pulls just enough out of his characters to build subjective assumptions that will eventually change. Luckily, the story trajectory is not telegraphed too early nor is it too easy to predict when the red herrings are so savvily planted. Before the final reveals, the success of the film is owed deeply to the performances. Andrew Simpson (Notes on a Scandal) has a trustworthy charm, allowing the viewer to get behind drifter Jack—or at least make us hope we can. Joséphine de La Baume (Kiss of the Damned) is lovely and enigmatic as Véronique, who seems to be a restless soul equal to Jack. ’s Grizard (TV’s The Returned) is a total wild card, gregarious but most likely dangerous, while genre queen Barbara Crampton (We Are Still Here) is vulnerable and off-kilter as Mary.

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Road Games may borrow from other movies, including a pulsating score by Daniel Elms that still proves evocative here, but it’s a slow-burn genre work that is tense and skillfully executed in its traditional whodunit approach. Director Pastoll and cinematographer Eben Bolter demonstrate a classy, assured technical hand for a thriller, making sure the smell of blood and sweat in the sweltering European countryside emanate from the screen. By the time the climax hits, it almost farcically culminates with characters running around a bail of hay to others tripping over sharp objects, dulling the tension a bit. Even so, the film has such an oddball mystique that Road Games still gels as a nifty little thriller.

Road Games is now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, and other video-on-demand platforms.