A great conspiracy thriller holds the audience in the palm of its hand. We empathize with the protagonist as they struggle to find the truth despite the machinations of the rich and powerful. We gasp at each fresh plot twist or revelation of devastating betrayal. We recognize the parallels between our own world and the world on screen, as both prove that justice is an illusion that the powers- that-be use to keep the powerless content with the lies that they’re fed on a daily basis. Sometimes we reach catharsis as the protagonist wins the day and sometimes we suffer right along with their inevitable loss; either way, a great conspiracy thriller validates our inner suspicions about how truly frightening and unfair life is. Sadly, WANDER is not a great conspiracy thriller. It doesn’t succeed from a narrative or an emotional perspective. The convoluted story and jittery camerawork alienate the viewer, and Aaron Eckhart’s lead performance never resonates enough to make up for the plot’s shortcomings.
WANDER starts out on a promising note. It begins with a land acknowledgment for all the filming locations and jumps straight to a dynamic and intriguing scene of a young woman (Elizabeth Selby) crawling out of an inexplicable single-car wreck on a cracked highway. She cries and walks toward the Wander town limits (as helpfully denoted by a giant welcome sign), and as she passes over the invisible threshold, two wounds appear over her heart and she falls dead on the dilapidated highway. It’s a tense, captivating scene that sets a perfect tone for a conspiracy thriller. Something is clearly wrong in this small town, and the viewer is primed for a wild ride where nothing is as it seems.
Aside from some breathtaking shots of storms rolling over the New Mexico landscape, the rest of the film doesn’t live up to this riveting beginning. Arthur Bretnik (Eckhart), a private investigator with a tragic past, is hired to investigate the murder of Zoe Guzman, the young woman who died in the opening scene. A former homicide detective, Bretnik became disabled after a car accident that killed his daughter and left his wife in a catatonic state. Bretnik believes that the accident was really a hit job due to his involvement in a case involving a John Doe with a mysterious chest wound…a chest wound that matches Zoe’s exactly.
Living in a trailer in the middle of nowhere (literally: the gate on his property reads “MIDDLE OF NOWHERE”), Bretnik spends his days working insurance fraud cases and his nights co-hosting a “deep web conspiracy podcast” with his friend Jimmy Cleats (Tommy Lee Jones). They discuss a variety of well-known conspiracies: chemtrails, the Illuminati, MK-Ultra, etc. Jones is serviceably gruff and cagey, sporting Hawaiian shirts and pointing out the influence of Big Brother in everything that he sees. Eckhart’s raspy-voiced and wild-eyed performance is fairly static; he never really conveys the frustrating horror of the conspiracy that surrounds him or the immense grief that Bretnik is supposed to be suffering in the wake of his daughter’s death and his wife’s inability to recognize or communicate with him.
Neither the byzantine script nor the erratic camerawork allows the actors’ performances to breathe in emotional moments or to build tension when the nonsensical plot is trying to move forward. The production design and gorgeous location shots do most of the heavy lifting in terms of characterization: the expansive desert emphasizes Bretnik’s isolation, and a simple image of his daughter’s old bicycle — sitting outside his trailer and wreathed with flowers as a heartbreaking memorial — says more about his loss than the too-frequent flashbacks and Eckhart’s flat reaction shots.
WANDER seems to want to draw attention to the plight of immigrants and BIPOC in America, but it treats most of the actors of color as afterthoughts or ciphers. They’re merely there as props for the white leads to save or exploit, depending on which side of the conspiracy they ultimately fall on. If this were a more nuanced film, one might argue that this is itself a commentary on white supremacy in America. WANDER doesn’t have the cohesive vision to lay claim to that idea, though. In one maddeningly brief scene, Ramona King (a Wander resident credited only as Neighbor) engages Bretnik in obsequious small talk, apparently seeing any white man as someone to placate for her own safety. King’s fear, sadness, and desperation are palpable. She seems to have walked off the set of The Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life,” and for a brief moment the film lives up to the eerie promise of the opening scene. The paranoid Bretnik quickly runs away from her, though, and King is never seen again.
Between its queasy camerawork and convoluted story, WANDER is a frustrating watch. There’s little suspense and few surprises. The viewer can’t get emotionally invested in any of the characters except perhaps for Zoe and the Neighbor, but they’re not on screen long enough to sustain the viewer’s interest in the rest of the film. With no emotional stakes and a confusing central conspiracy, WANDER is a thriller without thrills and a political statement that doesn’t know what it wants to say.
Saban Films will release the thriller WANDER in theaters, On-Demand, and Digital on December 4, 2020.