By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
A psychopathic serial killer, a down on his luck animal handler, and a chimpanzee join together for a road trip across the United States in 1964. That’s the striking and strange premise of He Went That Way, a captivating and suspenseful thriller premiering at Tribeca Festival.
He Went That Way is the feature film directorial debut of renowned commercial director Jeffrey Darling, who sadly passed away just three months after principal photography wrapped. The film, inspired by true events, stars Zachary Quinto (Star Trek, American Horror Story: Asylum) as Jim Goodwin, a celebrity animal handler whose career touring the country with Spanky the TV chimpanzee is faltering. Jim is traveling across the United States to Chicago when he picks up hitchhiker Bobby Falls (played by Euphoria and Deep Water’s Jacob Elordi). Initially, Bobby is seen as a typical, if not rebellious, 19 year old man, but the dark and twisted truth soon becomes clear – Bobby is a serial killer. What results is a tense and oddly comedic journey during which Jim tries to keep himself and his beloved chimp alive from the unstable and unpredictable Bobby.
He Went That Way’s premise is gripping, and one that has a basis in reality. The film is inspired by a true event in the life of serial killer Larry Lee Ranes, with obvious liberties taken throughout. It’s one of those implausible stories that you couldn’t make up, which makes it the perfect starting point for a compelling adventure film. Unlike many films that spawn from similarly wacky premises or true stories, He Went That Way never loses momentum nor does it ever come across as gimmicky or exploitative.
Instead, the film is a perfect blend of tension and dark humor. Jacob Elordi’s Bobby is wildly unpredictable and unsettling, fluctuating frequently from friendly to violent. The most minor of indiscretions can set him off and cause total outrage, whereas seemingly more significant indiscretions are brushed aside with unusual ease. This unpredictability intrinsic to Elordi’s character adds a consistent tension to He Went That Way. It’s never clear what is going to happen next and just what Bobby is capable of doing.
Obstructing some of this tension, however, is the extent to which the film holds the viewer at arms length away from its lead characters. Zachary Qunto’s animal handler Jim is the ‘good guy’ of this story and, in turn, evokes a level of empathy from the audience. However, Jim’s actions and motivations throughout the film are frequently puzzling. Why did he pick up Bobby in the first place? Why is he not using this opportunity to escape from Bobby? With no big revelatory twist that film is building up to, it becomes frustrating to keep at such a cognitive distance from the leading men.
Side-by-side with the tension is an understated and effective sense of humor. The premise alone of a chimp, serial killer, and animal handler all on a road trip together is extraordinary and provides so many opportunities for some genuine laughs throughout. In a Coen Brothers-esque fashion, there is an endearing charm to the humor, much of which comes from Jim and Bobby’s interactions with Sparky the chimpanzee.
Avoiding the ethical issues of using an actual chimp and the visual inconsistencies that come with expensive CGI, Sparky the Chimpanzee is brilliantly brought to life with practical effects from Alan Scott and his team at Legacy Effects. Sparky is played by a human actor wearing an animatronic mask with animatronic eyes, which results in a realistic, emotive, and anatomically accurate ape. Sparky never overshadows Quinto and Eloridi’s characters as he often features out of sight or in the background. But Sparky’s presence looms large over He Went That Way, in particular due to how surprisingly heartfelt Sparky’s relationship with Quinto’s Jim character is and the emerging bond between Sparky and Elordi’s Bobby character.
Similarly tapping into some unexpected emotions is the handling of Bobby, the hitchhiking serial killer. It might be a stretch to claim that Elordi’s character is likable or easy to empathize with, and yet it’s surprising how one’s perspective of him changes over the course of the film. This is in large part due to a profoundly complex and assertive performance from Jacob Elordi. Elordi doesn’t play up the stereotypical psychopathic or serial killer traits from previous films nor does he try to mimic other notable psychopathic characters like Patrick Bateman or the Joker. Elordi portrays callousness in a decidedly different, more subtle manner, which perfectly complements his character’s frightening unpredictability.
Alongside Elordi is Zachary Quinto, who delivers a vulnerable and heartfelt performance as the struggling animal handler Jim. Quinto portrays the character with a sort of desperation and career angst that immediately makes Jim a character the audience can’t help but root for. Issues getting inside the lead characters’ minds aside, Quinto and Elordi collectively bring incredible presence and emotional depth to the film.
Whether intentional or not, there is also gay subtext or undertones embedded throughout the film. Jim and Bobby have an unusual chemistry, which involves a sort of uncomfortable intimacy that could be interpreted as romantic. Jim’s puzzling willingness to remain with Bobby despite his troubling actions further adds to this sense that there may be some blossoming affection underlying their relationship. While never explored explicitly, the gay subtext adds yet another interesting layer to an already compelling film.
He Went That Way is an unconventional crime thriller about a serial killer, an animal handler, and a chimp on a road trip across the United States. Suspenseful and captivating from beginning to end, director Jeffrey Darling’s directorial debut also features unexpected emotional depth through the changing relationships of its three main characters. Although the film keeps the audience at arm’s length from the characters, in turn making it difficult to get inside their heads and understand their motives, this issue is offset by commanding lead performances from Zachary Quinto and Jacob Elordi. The latter is a particular highlight as he portrays frightening unpredictability, extreme callousness, and vulnerability in equal measure. In sum, He Went That Way is a road trip movie with a satisfying journey and destination.