Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy
Over the Metaphorical River and Through the Quasirepresentational Mythic Woods
While not really a horror film and certainly not deserving of the comparisons to Wrong Turn and The Hills Have Eyes that I've seen floating around, the black comedy Dead End is a small but potent dose of family dysfunction, ham-fisted acting, and pitch-dark humor. Wrapped in the guise of a "white people lost in the woods" slasher or survival horror film, Dead End boasts better-than-expected (or necessary) dialogue, some fantastically hystrionic performances, and another marathon acting session by who is quickly becoming my favorite beleaguered white patriarch, Ray Wise. Thanks to Ray's explosive and operatic performance (as well as a solid lead by Alexandra Holden as his well-meaning yet internally conflicted daughter and an entertaining, if mannered, comedic turn by Lyn Shaye as his batty wife), the film is an engaging and at times delightful watch, whose predicable outcome and "let me spell it out for you" ending only manage to take away slightly from the solid first 80 minutes.
One might wonder why you would want to make a film that takes place entirely on a deserted country road. I would argue that if the film had been shot with sets, the cast would have devoured them. Set against the backdrop of a cold Christmas Eve in the woodsy wilderness of upper BlahsieBlah, Dead End is the story of a family (Pop, Mom, Son, Sis, and Sis's Boyfriend) who find themselves off-course on the way to Grandma's and potentially in a lot of danger. Like any family, they openly hate one another, and spare no opportunity to cut one another down, make one another look stupid, and express their general boredom with each other's company. When they come across a woman wandering around in the darkness clutching a baby, they pick her up (despite the fact that she looks openly insane -- or worse, like she might be a folk singer) and go to a shed that they passed to look for help, setting into motion a series of bizarre events involving stopped clocks, corpses, and a mysterious black car that starts stealing family members away one by one.
This is one of those movies that's really hard to review because discussing just about any plot point will be giving something away, and I hate to ruin the enjoyment of the film for anyone, as the surprises are what give the movie is oomph and elevate it above standard dark comedy fare. But let me say this: the family is having a very hard time getting out of the woods, and someone or something seems determined to keep them there. The various family members come up with their own theories about what's going on, but none figures out the mystery until it's too late, even though we viewers likely picked up on it far earlier, which leads for a fairly dull resolution. Luckily, the performances and sheer battiness of the script make for an entertaining ride, quite a feat considering that 80% of the film takes place in a moving car and there isn't so much as a house or gas station to liven up the scenery.
See, this is one of those films where everything means something. What you're watching is a series of metaphors that ask you to look at typical family behavior through a new lens. The props, scenery, and actions of the characters -- even the characters themselves -- represent something. I know, it all sounds terribly French -- and what do you know, filmmakers Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa are, indeed, from Frenchland. Those who enjoy the dark class comedies of Francois Ozon (the Frenchman -- and homo to boot! -- who was behind Criminal Lovers, Sitcom, and 8 Women) will likely find much here to enjoy (the film also reminded me of the Ken Russell segment from the film Aria, for other reasons).
I'll give a taste of what happens, in no particular order, to give you at least some idea of what happens in the film:
drives toward Grandma's house.
There -- that didn't give too much away, did it? And really, this movie's quite a fun little watch, even if you know all of the above. Not that I didn't have my problems with it, of course. First off, I thought the ending was too obvious and dumbed-down, as I mentioned earlier. With such a nice mood sustained throughout, it felt like a cop-out. Second, the annoying homophobic and generally assholey comments that the son Richard (Mick Cain, a Bold and the Beautiful vet who turns in a surprisingly nuanced role) are just in bad taste, and make the character far less likeable than I think was intended (although I could be wrong; I just didn't like him in the least). And while for the most part the comedy and creepiness are fairly well-balanced, the points at which it tips into farce are pretty annoying -- as wife Laura, genre repeat offender Lyn Shaye (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Critters and Critters 2, the upcoming 2001 Maniacs) unfortunately has to do more "crazy-acting" than anyone else and is the main culprit, although she is required to act batshit for about 20 minutes straight, which is hard for anyone but Anne Heche and Margot Kidder to pull off convincingly. Off-screen, of course.
Again, Wise (Twin Peaks' Leland Palmer, also seen recently in Jeepers Creepers 2) is spectacular as ever, and Alexandra Holden brings admirable chops to the role of daughter Marion, who serves as our closest ally in this funhouse of a family. In the end, although some people may feel a bit ripped off (the twist ending doesn't really hold up under close scrutiny and many loopholes are stretched to tearing point), I still found Dead End to be a well-crafted and enjoyable glimpse into the life of a "typical American family" whose well-delineated roles are dashed to pieces under extreme duress. My advice is to pop it in, curl up on the couch, and enjoy the drama.
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