Studio: Image Entertainment
Director: Eric England
Writer: Eric England
Producer: Daniel Dunn, Eric England, Ace Marrero
Stars: Ace Marrero, Katie Stegeman, Jack Curenton, Lionel D. Carson, Alan Pietruszewski, Marshall Yates, Brad Douglas
A couple stranded on the side of a wintry road becomes embroiled in a deadly standoff with a hidden sniper.
It’s a small shame when a low-budget indie thriller is made competently enough for the most part, but the highest complimentary adjective that can be bestowed upon it is merely “serviceable.” With “Roadside,” it doesn’t appear as though writer/director Eric England has anything more in mind than to aim for mediocrity and barely hit the bullseye with a plop.
Dan and Mindy are a couple best characterized by their inability to have a conversation that isn’t contentious, argumentative, or comprised of complaints. Dan is possibly cheating on his pregnant wife while Mindy moans about the temperature inside the car, a hassle at work, and having to spend Christmas vacation on a road trip to Dan’s sister’s place in the backwoods boonies.
Act one doesn’t have a second to spare on making Dan or Mindy likable because it is preoccupied with stockpiling on foreshadowing. Exposition shovels it on thick with mentions of how the couple’s arrival is expected within the hour (so a family member can come looking for them when they don’t show up), a timely phone call from Dan’s possible mistress (so a wedge can be driven between the already bickering couple and prime them for reconciliation), and a caged dog repeatedly barking in the backseat (so the killer can have an innocent animal to claim as his first victim). The mind’s eye can practically envision Chekhov covering his eyes in embarrassment when Dan purchases a roadside emergency kit at the behest of a pushy gas station attendant, leaving Mindy to fondle the flare gun in close-up.
Dan and Mindy run afoul of a madman in a truck, leading to a quick cat-and-mouse moment as one vehicle tries briefly to run the other off the road. Before thinking that “Roadside” sounds inspired by thrillers like “Duel” or “The Hitcher,” know that it isn’t inspired at all. Those movies were open road nailbiters packed with fast thrills and tense chills. This lone car chase is only a tease.
Almost the entirety of “Roadside” takes place exactly where the title specifies. When Dan exits his vehicle to remove a fallen tree from the road, a sniper’s bullet prevents him from returning behind the wheel. The rest of the movie plays out with Mindy in the stopped car, Dan in front of it, and the sniper taunting both of them from the dark of the nearby trees.
The subsequent standoff makes no sense. Intermittent timestamps have the confrontation starting sometime before 8:42pm and concluding after 2:16am. For most of those six hours, the gunman never makes any demands and Dan rarely makes new moves to engage the gunman in any meaningful way. What is the gunman getting out of sitting silently in the freezing woods peering at the couple through a riflescope all night? There are clearly long lengths of time when there is zero interaction whatsoever between protagonist and antagonist. What kind of serendipity is Dan hoping will intervene while he does nothing aside from contracting hypothermia?
Motivations behind many actions are incredibly stupid. There’s no more eloquent descriptor. One scene requires Dan to be distracted in order for the sniper to sneak down to the car, intimidate Dan’s wife, and pop the trunk to murder the non-threatening Labrador in the backseat. So the screenplay has Dan pointlessly amble up the road a few feet with his back turned to the vehicle, somehow suddenly blind and deaf to the heavy activity going on immediately behind him.
If Mindy so much as flinches, the gunman is right there with a bullet or a threat to put her back into immobile statue mode (except for during an overly fidgety game of phone fumble while trying to surreptitiously dial 911). Yet the gunman has far less of a problem with Dan continually wandering up to the passenger side window where he plots with his wife in whispers about how to get out of their predicament.
Since the bulk of the gunman’s performance is done via voice, the film casts someone who has the tone of a professional broadcaster. That would be a terrific choice if the role called for a TV meteorologist or an infomercial pitchman. As a villain to take seriously, the pitch perfect VO is laughable. Despite the sniper being perched somewhere in the unseen distance and Dan positioned in front of a running car engine, the two men casually communicate at calm levels as if seated together at a card table.
Playing dialogue so cleanly and as though filtered through a crystal clear loudspeaker is just one of the ways “Roadside” betrays plausibility at every turn. At least the audience only has to survive 75-ish eyelid-drooping minutes stranded in the same spot along a nondescript, dark roadway. Dan and Mindy are stuck there for hours.
A handful of other reviews have confusingly likened “Roadside” to a Hitchcock thriller. I can only assume that somewhere out there is a Corman-caliber filmmaker making made-for-cable filler under the name Philbert Hitchcock or something, because no one could possibly mean Sir Alfred.
Review Score: 35