One of the more interesting questions a horror fan can pose to one another is “What exactly is a ‘genre’ film?” After all, genre films wear so many faces and carry so many different connotations that it’s very hard to define what counts, specifically, as a genre film. Some genre film are defined as such for being outside of the mold, including art house surrealism and controversial works of questionable taste, while others are defined by the horror and science fiction elements that are commonly perceived as existing outside the world of straightforward, dramatic storytelling. Somewhere amongst these films lies Scenic Route, a psychological thriller that plays like a David Mamet film through the wringer of a violent, bleak survivalist concept.
The film is simple, following two friends who have grown distant in their varied states of maturation and finds their innermost contempt and camaraderie boil to the surface when their truck breaks down on an empty desert road. With a scant cast and no more than four people with speaking roles, Scenic Road relies on evocative dialogue, striking cinematography and engrossing characters to draw you into the world it draws up. By investigating the psychology behind arrested development, the sterility of growing responsibility and the flexibility of conviction, the two main characters thrive through their shared flaws while pointing the other finger. There film often works as a drama as well as it does a genre picture, but the moments of violence, darkness and dread that permeate throughout the film definitely give it an edge towards the latter category. But what works best is the element of dependence between the characters, giving the words they speak some deft weight as potential threats jump in and out of their existential peripherals and provide a secondary element of hopelessness to the proceedings.
Technically speaking, the film is mostly terrifically composed, thanks to spot-on and driven direction from Kevin and Michael Goetz. The revelation of facts never feels forced or necessarily predictable, and there’s a feeling of depth to every sentence and development between the characters that helps establish the world within the film without giving it a visual aid or relying on exposition. The cinematography from Sean O’Dea is gorgeous, alternating from barren landscape shots to stark, interpersonal close-ups, and particularly excels during the bleak, ominous night shots within the desert. The editing from Kindra Marra is spot-on, helping set the pace and tone for a film that needs that specific amount tension to work, and the original score from Michael Einzinger feels concise and appropriate to each necessary cue. Also, the script from Kyle Killen is almost a home run, filled with wonderful moments of desperation and intensity, but specific issues with the film’s ending are what will make or break the film for most fans.
As for the performances in the film, the two leads, Josh Duhamel and Dan Fogler, are absolutely mesmerizing in their roles, often playing against type whilst simultaneously acknowledging the roles they’re most commonly associated with. Fogler starts off his role as a sarcastic goof but later evolves into something much darker and more disillusioned through the course of the movie. However, it’s Duhamel who steals the show, playing a character in such dire straits emotionally and physically that he turns to absolute barbarianism, and later enters a state of disrepair to mend the horrors that arise out of their journey. Duhamel’s evolution from normality to fear to despair to relentlessness is jaw-dropping and completely believable, and his time in the film feels entrancing as you watch the psychological and physical transformation he puts himself through.
However, before closing the book on Scenic Route, one cannot place final judgment without talking about the films very ending. Of course, this ending specifically may be more appropriate to the story and is intended to cause debate amongst the viewers of the film, but that doesn’t take away the investment that the audience has that felt up to that point and is robbed of almost instantaneously. As much as the tone beforehand may be too upbeat for the progression of the story, the ferocious bait-and-switch is egregiously frustrating. The final moments of the film are polarizing and shocking, for better or for worse, and although many viewers may enjoy the final twist of the film, some will find it to be a misguided, fairly clichéd question mark to a story that’s so personally involved that it somewhat requires a solid period.
Overall, Scenic Route is a dark, engulfing trip into two men at odds with themselves and nature, and is written and directed damn well until the final divisive seconds. Duhamel and Fogler have never been better, and are absolutely amazing in their balance of drama and aggression. Kevin and Michael Goetz are absolutely two genre directors worth watching, especially if they bring this visual style and psychological complexity of this work into their future work, and Kyle Killen is certainly a promising writer, especially with his sharp, nuanced dialogue. The only wariness from this project will come from the individual interpretation of the ending, although the ride up to that point is almost worth the wait.