by Hope Madden
Writer/director Abner Pastoll takes his cues from existing genre efforts, but the tale he weaves with Road Games is more than fresh and intriguing enough to stand on its own.
The film opens with unnervingly effective sound editing, as we witness the disposal of a body, pulled from a car trunk on its way in pieces to the overgrown countryside. Cut to Jack (Andrew Simpson) standing roadside, his thumb proudly announcing his purpose. He stands directly in front of a roadway sign warning in French: Danger! Do not pick up hitchhikers.
We’ll soon realize that Jack doesn’t speak French.
Pastoll continually uses this type of clever shorthand to utilize language barriers and heighten Jack’s helplessness – a state Jack himself is blissfully unaware of.
Unsurprisingly, Jack’s having no luck on the road, but soon he comes to the aid of a young woman – a fellow traveler – whose ride has become belligerent. Veronique (Josephine de la Baum) and Jack make the most of the time they have to kill on the sun dappled countryside until a kindly if odd man offers both a ride to his home for the night, with the promise of a lift to the ferry in the morning. Weird things get weirder in a film with an equal volume of red herrings and road kill.
Pastoll develops atmospheric dread reminiscent of that 1970 doomed road trip through the French countryside, And Soon the Darkness. In both films, there’s plenty you don’t know, language barriers heighten tensions, and pastoral isolation amplifies the danger.
But Pastoll inverses the narrative. And Soon the Darkness asked you to participate in the unraveling of a mystery. In Road Games, you can’t quite figure out what the mystery is.
The film has its share of problems. It too often feels contrived, it relies a bit heavily on stock genre images for shock value, and its slow pace sometimes feels leaden rather than languid. But in the end, the film succeeds due to Pastoll’s slyly layered writing combined with committed, idiosyncratic performances – especially from genre favorite Barbara Crampton and French character actor Federic Pierrot, as the couple who puts up the travelers for the night.