Synopsis: Hired to investigate a suspicious death in the town of Wander, a paranoid private eye with a troubled past becomes convinced the case is linked to the same conspiracy and cover-up that caused the death of his daughter.
Stars: Aaron Eckhart, Katheryn Winnick, Tommy Lee Jones, Heather Graham, Raymond Cruz, Brendan Fehr, Nicole Steinwedell
Director: April Mullen
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (2/10)
Review: What I’m loving more these days is not just revisiting old film noir classics from back in the day but watching new filmmakers try their hand at creating the “neo noir” and seeing just how hard it is to get that right tone and style. You get the sense at the skill it took directors six decades ago with far less of the technical resources to craft an atmosphere using just the camera, the script, and the actors. It was hard to pull one over on audiences who had recently been through wars; just because they had opted for a night out of escapist entertainment didn’t mean they lacked understanding of quality. Like how we all knew that those B-movie monster pics about creatures mutated by nuclear exposure had more than a little hidden message, noir had underlying themes that often bubbled close to the surface.
These films also attracted top name talent and that’s still true now. Take the latest effort, the gritty Wander which trades the breezy Eastern coastline noir tends to favor for a more Southern setting closer to the parched border in New Mexico. Oscar-winner Tommy Lee Jones (Hope Springs) stars (well, more like shows up) with headliner Aaron Eckhart (Erin Brockovich) as a pair of investigative podcasters drawn to the titular town by a mystery caller presenting a curious case of her missing daughter. Appealing to his guilty frustration at the disappearance and death of his own child, Eckhart’s character Arthur Bretnik finds similarities between this case and the one that hit too close to his own home. What’s more, his often-doubtful co-host feels its worth investigating as well…so off to Wander they go.
Now, this being a twisty curlicue of a script from writer Tim Doiron, nothing in Wander the film or Wander the town is quite as black and white as it initially appears to be. For instance, an opening prologue on a desolate highway charts an escape of some sort that turns deadly, suggesting the presence of an efficient force capable of ruthless killings. Yet Doiron and frequent collaborator April Mullen never take the time to explore the true depths of this most intriguing faction, stopping short at bringing in the mysterious Elsa Viceroy (a fine Katheryn Winnick, interesting enough but doing her best to convince us Jessica Chastain wasn’t the first choice for the role) who baselines out at an enigma for much of the film. Snazzy name aside, Viceroy is just a shadow presence we’re curious to know more about…but only because the film frustratingly holds back pieces of info deliberately as a way to extend whatever shroud of mystery it is clinging to.
Instead, we follow sad-sack Eckhart as he mopes around Wander looking for clues not just for the missing girl but for connections to his own daughter, connections he maybe wants to believe are there but really aren’t. As he talks with his concerned sister (Heather Graham, The Hangover Part III, solid for the first time in a while but sadly underused) back home, it feels like we’re watching Eckhart put together a puzzle inside the frame from a different set entirely. This mystery that is available to us isn’t nearly as intriguing as the one Eckhart (or Eckhart’s character at least) is selling so after a while it all starts to feel like time and talent wasted. The twists and turns arrive like clockwork and when they do they serve only to confuse the plot further rather than untangle a growing knot of sinewy information. By the time we do get to the end, it’s a bit of a hazy mess and I don’t think I could honestly say for sure what the real truth was. It’s fine to leave the audience with their own puzzle to take home and decode but it’s another thing entirely to go out with the equivalent of a headshake, eye roll, and an exasperated, ‘Whatever’.
The usually dependable Eckhart gets a little wild here and it’s not the best place for the actor to work. It’s strange because of all the actors working today, he’d be likely a good candidate to tackle a man with as many hang-ups as Arthur. In that way, Mullen has a ringer at the top of her call sheet but Eckhart either got as lost in the script as the viewer does or something didn’t translate in the performance because it’s a weird, rare off-key showing. I was actually surprised to see Jones appearing here and to be so involved in a number of scenes. The grumpy aura the actor gives off gels with the been-there-done-that general feel of the character but he’s not as present as the advertising would have you believe. I still miss the Jones that didn’t rely so much on a general annoyance as his main motivation for line readings, but at least this time that was kind of the point.
Slow on developments, even at a relatively short 94 minutes, I’d say Wander meanders more than anything. These kind of paranoid mysteries with layers of deception are the bread and butter that noir lovers feed off of but it’s been delivered as a paltry single slice cheese sandwich on day-old bread. It’s not satisfying when you’re watching it and before it has pulled a second rug out from under you you’ve thought of a dozen other films that can outshine it in substance and sophistication of execution.