It’s the most dire of situations that reveal to us who we truly are…
…We tend to hear about things like muggings, hijackers on a plane, and other terrible ordeals, and think, I would do this or that in that situation. But you can never really know until you’re in it, threat in your face, the pressure on. Unfortunately for our protagonist in directors Brad Baruh and Meghan Leon’s Night Drive, which just premiered at the Chattanooga Film Festival, he learns that high-pressure moments aren’t exactly his forte.
Written by Meghan Leon, Night Drive follows Russell (AJ Bowen), a down on his luck driver who has lost a lot recently. With one last job for the night, he picks up Charlotte (Sophie Dalah), a spunky passenger who gets him to cancel his plans and drive her around to various stops. But after an accident leaves the two with a dead body on their hands, Charlotte manages to convince Russell to get rid of the body rather than go to the cops, sending them into a spiraling night of misfortune and murder.
Yet this is one ride that consistently struggles to gain speed.
Set in Los Angeles around Christmas, Night Drive opens with jazzy holiday tunes that set the tone for a dark thriller which leans further into awkward comedy than unsettling chills at its own detriment. We meet Russell, played with an infectious charm by Bowen, who carries quite a bit of the film with his performance. A good guy who turns down tips from passengers because Christmas, there’s a cheery sense to Russell that fits right in with the heavy holiday theme.
Russell even manages to maintain that joyful spirit for a bit after picking up Charlotte, brimming with an effective playfulness from Dalah that is mean-spirited, poking and prodding at Russell’s insecurities such as his age, but delivered with a humorous sincerity that draws us towards her. Right off the bat, there’s something mysterious about Charlotte, especially after she begins offering Russell hefty tips to not ask questions, which he goes against his better judgement and takes.
Despite some clunky direction and chaotic editing which never quite manages to add to the tension as it intends, there’s an endearing quality to Russell and Charlotte’s relationship that sucks the audience in and excites us as backseat passengers to whatever chaos is about to ensue. The problem is that what starts off feeling like Collateral meets The Hitcher loses gas and loses it quickly.
Night Drive suffers from an issue of veering off into different directions again and again, unable to choose any particular path. What’s with that fight that happened at Charlotte’s first stop, and what’s with the box she stole? While the audience is going all Brad Pitt and yelling “what’s in the box?”, Night Drive pulls us in another direction following an accident that forgets the A story and suddenly has us following a B story of what to do with the aforementioned body. And this isn’t the only time the film takes an exit ramp into other storylines. What Night Drive seems to feel are unexpected twists and turns are really just distractions from the more interesting narrative the film opens with.
Both Bowen and Dalah are fantastic performers, but their reaction to having a dead body fall into their laps comes off as more of a shoulder shrug than any real panic. For Dalah’s character and her Patrick Bateman level of psychotic tendencies, that makes sense, but Bowen is too non-chalant here. Night Drive has plenty going on, but it’s difficult to buy into the scenario because much of it feels forced, especially once certain twists are revealed later. Character motivations in Night Drive are murky at best, with the film stuck in neutral when it comes to the suspense, because we as the audience hardly ever feel like we can grasp what is really happening and why. There’s just too much coincidence and head-scratching decisions from the characters to make it all believable.
Which is why much of what’s to like with Night Drive rests in Bowen, Dalah, and the quirky nature of their characters. The filmmakers seem to understand this, and so instead of leaning into the darkness of the story, they instill awkward comedy instead, with one scene in particular involving the two buying tools to bury the body, and Bowen having a stare down with a rubber rat in a Christmas hat. Extreme close ups between Bowen and the cashier enhance the nervous tension which Russell is attempting to contain, and which Bowen portrays wonderfully. Night Drive isn’t laugh out loud funny, but between Bowen’s tics and Dalah’s delightfully psychotic performance, the two manage to keep the audience strapped in during a ride that too closely follows the speed limit.
None of this is to say that Night Drive doesn’t go to some dark places. Quite the contrary. Some of the film’s more effective moments come when Russell is forced to face the dark heart of human beings, coupled with some solid gore in the film’s few but highly gruesome moments. Night Drive is at its best when Russell and Charlotte are forced to confront each other’s opposing philosophies on human life, and the truth of what rests inside each of them.
There’s a law in writing, as with most things, that keeping it simple is best, and Night Drive has every chance to be the thrill ride it wants to be, but like an obnoxious dad on vacation, wants to stop at every tourist attraction it sees. There’s one final twist in Night Drive that is so out of left field, it’s much less a twist than it is a puzzle piece from a completely different puzzle, causing the whole thing to crash and burn. It’s one thing to surprise the audience, but it’s another to pull the rug out from under them with a reveal that doesn’t add much to the story or offer much re-watch value for new observations.
Solid performances and interesting characters go a long way to keep the audience buckled in with Night Drive, but distracting turns and a lack of effective suspense make this one ride you might want to pass up.
By Matt Konopka