First-time feature writer-director Zachary Sluser clearly has something to say about metaphysics, the idea that we’re all connected and karma, but none of it makes much of an impression due to the extremely loose, bemusing and rather dull narrative in The Driftless Area.
The movie opens with a scene between Pierre (Anton Yelchin) and Shane (John Hawkes). Pierre’s stranded on the side of the road and Shane’s nice enough to give him a lift, but eventually the two get into an argument and Shane gives Pierre the boot. However, instead of driving off and leaving Pierre in the dust, Shane accidentally drives his truck off the road, giving Pierre the opportunity to get back at him and take off with his bag of stolen cash. It’s an amusing opening that introduces two curious characters who inadvertently get into a madcap scuffle, but immediately after, the charm and interest dissipate because nothing meaningful comes of it.
Sluser leans heavily on the idea that we’re all connected – too heavily. After that opening scene, the movie jumps back in time so that Pierre’s longtime friend Carrie (Alia Shawkat) can provide some backstory and introduce the key characters in his life including his love interest Stella (Zooey Deschanel) and the local hermit Tim Geer (Frank Langella). After Carrie recounts the details of Pierre’s tragic life, it’s tough not to feel for the guy, but that certainly doesn’t guarantee you’ll connect to him on a deeper level. As presented in the movie, all of the characters just are who they are. No one grows or changes. They’re all just going with the current of this bizarre, ethereal situation.
Shane’s side of the story has more life to it, but still no depth. He’s a career criminal with a temper that leads to heated poker games, odd interactions with Aubrey Plaza’s character and far more lively shenanigans than what the folks in Pierre’s hometown are up to. Plus, Shane’s got a clear-cut mission, to get his money back. Pierre, on the other hand, is just existing. We watch him grow close to Stella, but we’re really just waiting for Shane to make his move. Stella and Tim do have an agenda of their own, but even their little operation requires them to just wait around for something to happen that they have absolutely no control over.
You could go through the movie taking their word for it and waiting for everything to come together when the time is right, but even when that does finally happen, it doesn’t feel like some monumental revelation that was meant to be. It’s forced, pointless and unsatisfying. The only real takeaway here is Shawkat. She doesn’t get much to do in the movie, but everything she does do is natural and interesting, especially amidst an ensemble of characters who are all bland and predictable. I’ve never seen Shawkat err when adapting to a unique situation or tone, but she stands out more so than ever here because Carrie is the only thing that feels right and real in this world.
The Driftless Area really lives up to that title. There’s a small handful of moments that will hold your attention, namely the opening and this one especially unlucky moment during which Pierre literally falls down a well, but it’s touch and go. One minute you think you’re getting into it but then all of a sudden it becomes someone else’s story or Pierre becomes this passive, lovesick protagonist who isn’t really fighting for anything. And even when he does make decisions and take risks, there isn’t anything inspiring about his efforts, which is a major problem for a movie that’s about morality – or maybe it’s about love – or righting wrongs? No matter the specifics, The Driftless Area is asking you to think about big, etherial topics, but then gives you no direction or new insight to consider.
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