Directors: Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath, and Radio Silence
Cast: Kate Beahan, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Susan Burke, Gerald Downey, Dana Gould, Hassie Harrison, Davey Johnson, Nathalie Love, Hannah Marks, Tipper Newton, Maria Olsen, Kristina Pesic, Matt Peters, Anessa Ramsey, Fabianne Therese, Tyler Tuione, Chad Villella, David Yow, Mather Zickel, the voices of Zoe Cooper, Karla Droege, Larry Fessenden, Justin Welborn
Running Time: 1:29
Release Date: 2/5/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 5, 2016
While driving on an unnumbered state highway in the middle of the desert, a DJ on the upper end of the FM radio dial speaks of "lost souls" and "redemption." That's the thematic thrust of Southbound, an anthology of five short stories from four different filmmakers (one of them a team of four people, just to confuse matters in your mind), but this is a collection that also has an obvious narrative thrust to it. The path of that narrative momentum also becomes another theme, although it's probably best to leave that part of it a mystery.
Mystery is the department in which this film as a whole and each of these individual segments excel. These stories don't hold our hands. They're willing to leave us with more questions than answers. To a degree, each one of these shorts is about the way the central mystery of each affects these characters. It's not important, for example, that we figure out who the trio of people are on the other end of a frantic 911 phone call, but it is vital that the man making the call has a choice whether or not to listen to them. That short is about the repercussions of both decisions, but trust, me, we'll get back to that one, because it's clearly the best of the bunch.
Being faced with such anthology movies is almost always a struggle, because the pieces seem to fit together in a more esoteric way than a direct one. We need a guide of some sort, such as the radio DJ (voice of Larry Fessenden), to explain why these different tales of horror should mesh together and how they do so. What helps here is that the four filmmakers are obviously working together in some way, making sure that each, successive story follows the preceding one and that there's a clear aesthetic connection between them all. There are certain plot elements that a few of them share (No one can find exactly where they are, even using GPS technology), and there's a sense of some overarching mythology to this highway. Each short reveals another aspect of it without giving away or explaining too much.
The only way that one or two of them might seem out of place is in terms of the quality of the story, and even then, the lesser ones still have a place here. It even makes it a little easier to forgive the obvious climax of one of the stories, because, without it, we might not have gotten the sucker punch that opens the best segment.
Even the lesser ones aren't bad. The fourth one, featuring a haggard man named Danny (David Yow) interrogating bar patrons with a shotgun about the location of his missing sister (Tipper Newton) in a remote town, begins with the level of momentum and intrigue that we've come to expect by the time it arrives, but the script for it (by Dallas Hallam and director Patrick Horvath) fizzles out just as it starts to pick away at the shared past of these characters.
The second one, about an all-woman rock band whose van gets a flat tire on the highway, stays stronger for a longer period, as Sadie (Fabianne Therese) and her bandmates (Nathalie Love and Hannah Marks) receive an offer to spend the night at a married couple's (Susan Burke and Davey Johnson) nearby home. The couple have a way about them that seems from another time, strange friends (Dana Gould and Anessa Ramsey), and a recipe for a "Sunday roast" that looks like someone dug up dirt from a gravesite. The resolution is a bit too obvious for its own good, but the tension developed by director Roxanne Benjamin is palpable.
The film's bookend segments work quite well, especially in the way the scripts for them (by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin) tie the two together without explaining too much. The last is a home invasion thriller, featuring Jem (Hassie Harrison) spending one last weekend with her parents (Kate Beahan and Gerald Downey) before the girl leaves for college. The directing team of Radio Silence (individually Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, and Chad Villella), who work double duty on the first and final entries, get a lot of creepy mileage from the masks and silence of the invaders, who seem able to arouse guilt from the family members simply by looking at them.
The anthology opens with the team's other entry, which follows two men (Bettinelli-Olpin and Villella) as they try to escape the highway's grasp. With its combination of characters holding a dark, untold secret and supernatural beings that seem to want those characters to confront it, it feels like something from a lost Stephen King story. It's wickedly funny, too, in the way the men keep confronting the same locations over and over again, while an otherworldly presence provides a cheerful soundtrack to their terror.
The standout of the segments, though, is that third one, which opens with a distracted driver named Lucas (Mather Zickel) as he stares at photos his wife has sent him. There's an "accident," and Lucas is faced with a moral dilemma: help or leave. What results is a bloody, demented reminder that no good deed goes unpunished, and writer/director David Bruckner offers squirm-inducing shots from the inside of a body as someone with absolutely no experience must perform invasive surgery to save another person and assuage his guilt.
It's surprising how well the individual pieces of Southbound hold together. The stronger segments bolster the ones that aren't quite as effective, and the result is that the five tales create a sense of a single, disquieting entity.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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