You name your daughter Scarlet, you’re just asking for drama.
You take a road trip with a woman named Scarlet, through the desert Southwest to LA, colorful off-the-interstate hotels and empty roadhouses, you’re asking for weirdness.
Like her getting sick, getting rattled by the constant prattle of local TV and radio sermons by a crazed preacher. A crazed white-eyed local peeks into their windows and standsin traffic.
And then Scarlet (Jena Malone) vanishes at the “Bottom of the World.” Or out of their room at the El Rancho. And Alex (Douglas Smith) is lost without her, or so you’d think.
Here’s a cryptic, creepy supernatural thriller that isn’t quite cryptic or creepy enough. This desert tale has hints of “The Vanishing” and every scarred, masked stalker movie ever made, every masked stalker who whistles “Amazing Grace” as he offers “to help.”
“Sometimes, even the mouse chases the cat.”
That preacher? He’s played by Ted Levine, “Buffalo Bob” of “Silence of the Lambs.” He stares out of that El Rancho TV right into Alex’s soul.
The hermit in the mask drags Alex into Monument Valley, and the mystery and threats deepen. Did he bury her alive “with them,” in “the city of pain” where “she never will die?”
Malone gets a few early scenes to make Scarlet burn into the memory. Sultry, sexual in the extreme and mercurial, her Scarlet is given to popping the eyes out of Alex’s head with her confessions about “the worst thing” either of them has ever done. Hers, about a little cousin she abused, is chilly, creepy beyond belief. She’s messing with him. Surely. Hopefully.
She’s happy to drink too much, to mess with his head in between noisy adventures in bed. No wonder he is consumed.
What happened to her? That faintly-deranged, tipsy preacher has to have something to do with it, or some answers. He has an old framed photo of her in his empty church.
“It’s a memento! Alex…”
“How do you know my name?”
“Why wouldn’t I know your name. You’ve been runnin’ around with my daughter.”
Time is a fever dream as Alex drifts between then and “now,” working in real estate, living with a woman (Tamara Duarte) who seems a stranger.
“We met yesterday. I’m your wife.”
Russian roulette with just one competitor, flickering TV static images of people there, and then not there, the faulty memories of a place that when he goes back, looking for answers, offers none.
No “remote” hotel. It’s in a busy town. No Church of the Solid Rock Sufferer. There’s no creepy preacher or creepier stalker
“We’re in hell, aren’t we? I’m DEAD.” Or maybe “I’m dreaming!”
Wherever he is, everybody has some sort of aphorism to share.
“People tend to focus on the world around them, rather than the world within them.”
The weirdness evaporates with a simplistic coda, one of those “We’ve been messing with your head, here are all the answers” finales.
Malone does her best slutty fantasy figure/femme fatale turn. Levine is so naturally scary that it’s a wonder he had a career totally removed from “Silence of the Lambs” frights.
Smith, of TV’s “Big Little Lies” and “The Alienist,” has the haunted eye-sockets of grief and madness. He has to carry a tale that’s too chilly to allow for human connection.
There’s a reason he doesn’t go full frantic “What has happened to my girlfriend?” in those early scenes. But that hamstrings the movie. We need that connection, need his sense of urgency and panic. Mysteries are intriguing, relationships are what pull us in.
“Bottom of the World” is a location (New Mexico) in search of a better movie, a mystery thriller that’s all puzzle and no heart.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Jena Malone, Douglas Smith, Ted Levine, Tamara Duarte
Credits:Directed by Richard Sears, script by Brian Gottlieb. A Zed Filmworks/Netflix release.
Running time: 1:25