“The Driftless Area” is as good a representation of Anton Yelchin’s acting and role selection as you’re going to find. A mystical, moody and cryptic dramatic thriller with wry touches, it was “Indie” with capital “I,” so obscure as to earn very little theatrical release and almost no attention after his death, just after finishing it.
It plays like a film that came to life when some screenwriter (Tom Drury and director Zachary Sluser co-wrote it) noticed the geographical name of that corner of Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota that wasn’t flattened by glaciers — “driftless.”
The result is a story that drifts around in time, it’s narrative “present,” with characters that drift by or linger in the metaphysical. Yes, it’s willfully odd, but so arresting that you can see why an all-star lineup of indie-cinema favorites signed on for the ride.
Yelchin plays Pierre, a young man we meet as he hitchhikes into a mugging. The first sign that this won’t go well is that John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone”) plays the pickup truck driving redneck who stops. The second is his instant demand for “gas money,” $20 just to take Pierre to the nearest garage so he can have his car towed and fixed. The third is when he stops the truck and mugs Pierre, stealing the rose bush (NOT a rose bush) Pierre is carrying with him.
But there’s justice in this universe. Pierre throws a rock at the creep as he drives off. Damned if he doesn’t crack the creep in the head, causing him to roll into a ditch, out cold. Pierre’s revenge is getting his rose bush back, tossing the dude’s keys away and stealing a backpack full of cash the chatty jerk bragged about before kicking Pierre out of the truck.
The story starts to fold back on itself as we see why Pierre bought the flowers, how they’re for this strange, romantic young woman (Zooey Deschanel) who walked naked away from a house that burned down around her, how Shane (Hawkes) set that fire and how he was put up to it by the evil rent-a-car crook Ned (Ciaran Hinds) and his minion (Aubrey Plaza).
Alia Shawkat plays Pierre’s pal, the sort of woman who says “This is what people talk about when they refer to ‘having a good time.”
That’s one of the quirky charms in play here, a sort of “driftless”drollery that has characters noting the obvious, that “It is what it is” is a meaningless, nonsensical expression that everybody picked up and abandoned a decade ago, confessing that “I just thought life would be fun. That was my impression.”
No. Not really. Even in non-“driftless areas.”
Deschanel took one last stab at playing the “quirky girl” before hitting 40. Stella meets Pierre when he falls into a well.
Him: “I think you saved my life.” Her: “I think you’re right.”
She has a protector/mentor (Frank Langella) who looks after her after the fire.
And everybody circles back around to the fictional present, where the brutish Shane hunts for his missing cash and revenge, Pierre’s aimless life takes on one big “purpose” and Aubrey Plaza gets to play one libidinous lowlife.
“The Driftless Area” has a middling sense of place (What, no accents?), Several precious touches and a pall cast over it that comes from any movie Yelchin was in just before his Jeep killed him. There’s action and violence, and not much to the romance that’s set up here.
It’s watchable, but “Driftless” is more a movie that you like and appreciate than respect or feel challenged by. Color me shocked that neither the writer nor director has made a film since.
MPAA Rating: R for language, some drug use and violence
Cast: Anton Yelchin, Zooey Deschanel, Alia Shawkat, John Hawkes, Aubrey Plaza and Ciaran Hinds.
Credits: Directed by Zachary Sluser, script by Tom Drury, Zachary Sluser. A BRON Pictures film on Tubi, Amazon, etc.
Running time: 1:35