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Wander Brings Gruff and Gravel to Conspiracies

Image courtesy of Saban Films

What folks are going to find with the escalating thriller Wander, is a screwy little movie saved by committed performances. The trouble comes when the committed performance comes from the character that should be (and ends up) committed in the clinical sense. Be ready to question everything in Wander because the audience lens and main character is a rooting-tooting conspiracy theorist, yarn-and-tape boards with newspaper clippings and all, who makes his scratch as a private investigator. The unreliable narrator energy is strong.

If that’s up your alley when it hits VOD on December 4th, enjoy a heavy leading role in a VOD indie for the always-on Aaron Eckhart. He plays the torn and tortured Arthur Bretnik. No, he’s not a beatnik with an “R” for rage replacing the “A” for artistic, but close. The Thank You For Smoking Golden Globe nominee goes full gruff-and-gravel as a former cop living in a pair of trailers out in the prickly, coyote-filled New Mexico brush with much clouding his mind.

Arthur bears grief and responsibility for the, in his eyes, unresolved automobile accident that claimed the love of his daughter and hospitalized his wife in a vegetative state. Isolated with the old family dog, Arthur takes his meds and tries to motivate himself everywhere he goes, with a pair of little first-person notes that read “I am powerful” and “I am protected.” That’s his drive to go on. He is convinced of greater evil intent from the tragic incident and that pushes him, for better or worse, and much to the regret of Shelly Luscomb (Heather Graham), a helpful federal agent colleague who checks up on him.  

To vent and spin his theories, Arthur co-hosts an outlaw podcast of conspiracy theories as “Atlas Major” alongside “Wild Horse,” his wily old friend and enabler Jimmy Cleats, played with just the right amount of immoral zeal by Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones. The two take audience calls and chase cases that might expose their wild notions. One such mystery comes their way from a mother (Deborah Chavez) investigating her daughter’s suspicious death in the nearby town of Wander (filmed in Carrizozo, NM).  

Elsa examines a piece of evidence wearing a hat and sunglasses next to the sheriff.
Image courtesy of Saban Films

Sure enough, Arthur’s digging leads to what looks to be a network of abductions trying to throttle undocumented immigrants, a smoking gun for all he’s studied for years. Furthermore, he starts to see an odd and unexplained connection, partly in the form of a black-hatted female enforcer (Kathryn Winnick of Vikings), between this dead girl and the John Doe that caused his family’s car collision. Hope of satiating that violent and painful redemption spins his nerves and his investigations out of control. As it says, “a man unhinged is a silent warrior.”

As aforementioned, Aaron Eckhart dives entirely into this sad and shell-shocked character. Growling every line and adding a pronounced limp to his movements, he plays wild-eyed desperation and delusion with stoicism fitting his stature as a heroic actor. Lifting Wander to something serious, though not all that brazen, next to Eckhart, Tommy Lee Jones can always spin C-movie straw like this into gold. He’s an ideal sidekick enigma with convincing acting poundage. 

Supporting those headliners is a production aiming for seedy and dusty shade matching the twister composure of the movie. No one is going to match Roger Deakins lensing Sicario, but the rough-hewn cinematography from TV director of photography Gavin Smith and Steadicam specialist Russ De Jong puts viewers in the thick of the hot grime. They bend the question marks happening before them with wiggles and shakes. The same compliment can be extended to the ominous score from composer Alexandra Mackenzie working her first feature film with songs performed by Jeremy Dutcher. The edge is there, with promised higher stakes to be a voice for the silenced.

How high? Well, Wander opens with a large-type pre-credits half-prologue/half-dedication statement that reads:

“To all indigenous, black, and people of color who are targeted and have been displaced through border control on stolen land. May we expose government violences, propel change, and honor the voices of those who have been silenced. Wander was filmed on the homelands of the Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache peoples.”

That’s sure swinging for the fences for director April Mullen (Below Her Mouth) and debuting writer Tim Doiron.

While such a nefarious underlying problem may be very true rottenness here in this country, Wander isn’t the movie to expose or correct it. That statement talks of championing diversity in a movie with very little of it front-and-center, other than virtually invisible victims laying before the known actors. More could have been attempted and accomplished in the screenplay and on-camera. Try as it may, going to that citation level is beyond what this scattered movie can accomplish.

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Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website "Every Movie Has a Lesson," our offshoot of Horror Obsessive, and also on Medium.com publications. As a school educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.

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  1. Spot on review of an underwhelming grab bag of ideas, never fully conjugated into the narrative. The “dedication” at the beginning of the film, is not only embarrassing but offensive, as it is no more than an attempt to lend gravitas to a sophomoric Scooby-Doo-Meets-Art-Bell plotline. Tommy Lee Jones has a career littered with drivel, but this “retirement fund” endeavor brings him to an all time low, much less the “wtf was he thinking?” fiasco of a performance by Eckhart.

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