Ever since THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and THE HILLS HAVE EYES dirtied up cinema screens back in the 70’s, we’ve been inundated with backwoods horror, where groups of murderous, mutated redneck cannibals terrorize unwitting travelers, teenagers, or tourists when they’re unfortunate enough to pass through their territory. DRIFTER is another in a long line of films to rely on the same setting and tropes, but does it bring enough meat to the table to justify its entrance into your eyes and ears?
DRIFTER starts well with a tense and bloody stand-off that ends with a bullet in the head of an unnamed man. On the other end of the gun in Dominic Pierce (Drew Harwood), who, along with his brother Miles (Aria Emory) are on the run from the law through the California desert. Miles – not quite all there mentally – relies on Dominic to take care of him, and soon they find themselves taking shelter in a run down trailer park that’s not-so-surprisingly home to a family of inbred cannibals.
The first thing that will strike you about DRIFTER is just how well it’s shot. Inventive use of angles and color make this a visually arresting film. The desert is made to look vast and foreboding, and the run-down, dusty edifices of the rusted trailer park tilt wonkily and askew upon their supports. Everything is broken down and lost, much like the characters themselves. The locations are used to their full advantage and are the real highlight.
Every frame is filthy. The actors are encrusted with layer upon layer of grime and scum. The soundtrack – synthy and moody – is also very impressive and conjures up nostalgic feelings for vintage horror films. As a visual and aural project, DRIFTER succeeds at what it wants to do. It looks and sounds the part of an old, backwoods horror flick, which is hard to do on digital. If only this were on film with a scratchy and grainy presentation, it would have been something to behold.
Where it doesn’t succeed is in the screenplay. The actors are left grumbling and mumbling supposed profundities. No one enunciates the flat dialogue, so we’re left without much to digest beyond the aesthetic. There’s no one here to root for; the characters are immensely unlikable. The villains aren’t scary, either. When the cannibal family is finally revealed, you’ll wonder if they’re actually cannibals, or just a shitty alternative punk band from the 90’s.
The screenplay wants to be FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, attempting to pull a similar switcheroo that tears the rug out from under the audience at the midway point, but Rodriguez and Tarantino were able to do that with flair. Here it doesn’t work nearly as well, and instead stalls the narrative and leaves us grasping for something to care about.
Let’s face it, there’s not enough substance to go around when it comes to stories like this, so the only way to make it a meal is with as much shock value as you can fit onto the cinematic plate. DRIFTER sets a grim tone with its music and visuals that never pay off. There are a couple of moments and flashes of horror, but they’re not strong enough to leave an indelible impression. I wanted more gore, more grue, but it never came.
There’s an awful lot of padding for a film that only runs for 85 minutes, with scenes that go on too long without enough material to sustain them. Most of what goes on is derivative, and nothing really distinguishes this film from the ones that came before it. I lost my patience when the climactic scene was lifted directly from THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. The only thing cannibalized here is the genre itself.
DRIFTER is visually fantastic, and the soundtrack is great. It deserves credit for those two elements, but the rest is leftovers.
DRIFTER is now out in select theaters and will be available on VOD and iTunes February 28.