As a kid, I grew up in the cozy suburbs of Illinois, but had a lot family in rural Wisconsin. We would visit my grandparents there at least a couple of times a year, and something about being out in the middle of woods with people who were so obnoxiously nice that it was almost robotic, always put me on edge. These are two elements that 30 Miles from Nowhere gets so right. Unfortunately, it gets everything else so, so wrong…
…Not in regards to the Midwest, mind you. That odd lifestyle is captured perfectly. But 30 Miles from Nowhere is loaded with issues, without much to distract from that fact. The debut feature from director Caitlin Koller and writer Seana Kofoed, 30 Miles from Nowhere follows a group of somewhat estranged friends who return to Wisconsin to attend the funeral of their even more estranged pal, Max (Andrew Rothenberg). But what starts as an awkward reunion quickly turns into a weekend of strange terror as the group realizes something isn’t quite right at Max’s rural cabin where they’re staying.
If there’s a major strength to Koller’s film, it’s that 30 Miles from Nowhere is an extremely uncomfortable little movie in the best possible way, more or less. Rather than rely on nasty gore or gruesome torture porn, Koller and Kofoed steep their film in psychological torment of a subtle nature. Every line of dialogue, every odd smile from Max’s widow, Sylvia (Carrie Preston), is meant to either make the audience cringe or outright declare that something is wrong and these people need to get the fuck out of this cabin, funeral be damned. Preston is cast perfectly in her role. She clearly relishes in being the oddball, so nice she’s too nice Midwest wife, and to the actress’s credit, is spot on in her portrayal. Preston never fails to steal the scene. Kofoed’s script uses her to highlight the strangeness of most Midwesterner’s enduring hospitality, and she does so with a glee that will have you shifting in your seat, waiting for her to go Lizzie Borden on everyone and whip out her ax.
But 30 Miles from Nowhere doesn’t always hit that suspenseful nerve that makes us sweat. Sometimes, the film is just plain unnatural. While the cast plays their parts well, in particular Rob Benedict as Larry, the comic relief, the script is littered with expositional dialogue to keep the audience updated on just how shitty these people have been to each other, and it almost never comes off natural. And that’s one of the biggest problems here. 30 Miles from Nowhere is based on the idea of friendship, and what we’re willing to do, or not do, for our friends. Which is a great theme to toy with, if the characters actually feel like good friends. Instead, these people are constantly reminding each other how awful they all are. Larry is constantly referred to as a “ladies man” who always stole girlfriends from the others, including from Max. Hardly anyone treats resident tattle-tale Paul (William Smillie) with any respect. Bess (Cathy Shim) has slept with just about everyone, and continues to with Jack (Postell Pringle) despite his girlfriend, Amber (Marielle Scott), being in the other room, which also makes Jack a bastard. The point is, this cast is like the asshole version of Friends. To be fair, friendships are complicated, and there are some rare, brief moments of actual compassion from a couple of the characters, but for the most part, these people come off as horny, soulless jerks out for themselves, and as a viewer, we need to believe they love each other for what happens down the road to matter. Hard to do when everyone consistently backstabs and insults one another.
30 Miles from Nowhere plays out like a combination of different tropes from horror films. There’s Sylvia, the quirky and probably murderous widow venturing out into the night to do god knows what. Blood bubbles out of sinks. Characters wake up in a bed full of cockroaches. Strange figures pop up outside windows, but of course, no one believes Amber, who is half everyone’s age, when she says she saw someone. This cabin is The Wisconsin House that Dripped Blood. All of this might be okay, except we don’t get much of the characters actually reacting to any of the horror. In one scene, Bess is showering and ends up being greeted by a splash of gore as blood sprays from the showerhead and drenches her in the red stuff. But she doesn’t…even…notice. And those cockroaches? They’re nowhere to be found when the cast comes running in to see what the commotion is, which leads me to my next issue.
With just over fifteen minutes left in the film, the audience is still entirely unclear if any of this is real, or what, exactly, is going on. For example, back to the cockroaches, when the rest of the cast rushes in to check on Amber and Elaine (Seana Kofoed), there are clearly no roaches in the bed, but no one makes a point of that, acting as if they believe the two women. Really? No one wants to question why there are suddenly no roaches around? All of this is building up to a twist that is undercooked, despite being the most interesting part of the film. Koller and Kofoed spend so much time on trying to mislead the audience, that 30 Miles from Nowhere ends up losing focus of its main themes in place of red herrings. Which is unfortunate, because those themes play perfectly into the twist ending. An ending which could’ve been all the stronger had the film made it more of the central plot, and not a sloppily introduced concept with just fifteen minutes left. 30 Miles from Nowhere takes its audience on a blindfolded walk through the woods, and leaves us there to find our own way out. I was so lost from this blended concoction of horror tropes, that by the end, I couldn’t see the trees for the forest.
30 Miles from Nowhere is a slow, ill-conceived film that tries to do too much without taking the time to make its more tantalizing parts shine. There is some quirky fun that gives the film life despite its downfalls, but with an unsatisfying ending and sloppy premise, you’re better off leaving this one out in the woods.
30 Miles from Nowhere is now on VOD from 4Digital Media.
By Matt Konopka