The HoloFiles

SXSW REVIEW: Desert Road

By George & Josh Bate

Fans of The Twilight Zone will know that “The Hitch-Hiker” is one of the series’ greatest episodes. The episode, based on Lucille Fletcher’s radio play The Hitch-Hiker, follows a young woman named Nan driving cross-country from Manhattan to Los Angeles. After losing control of her car on the road, Nan sees a strange man on the side of the road looking to hitchhike. This strange man then ominously reappears time and time again as Nan continues driving through the desert. The horror of this episode of The Twilight Zone is one of repetition. Why and how does this hitchhiker keep showing up? Does he want to harm the woman? And, more broadly and simply, what is going on? Desert Road, a new film premiering at this year’s SXSW, expertly leans into the horror of this classic episode of The Twilight Zone, culminating in a suspenseful, terrifying, and unexpectedly emotional cinematic journey.

Desert Road, written and directed by Shannon Triplett in her feature directorial debut, follows a young woman (played by Kristine Froseth) who is driving cross-country to travel back home. On her journey, the woman crashes her car while on a desolate desert road and must walk to find help. However, no matter what way in which she walks, the woman continually ends up back at her crashed car again.

The similarities between “The Hitch-Hiker” and Desert Road are evident from the film’s early moments, but stating that the latter is a mere mimic of the former grossly overlooks the film’s originality and unique contemporary horror. In many ways, Desert Road is a premise-driven film that quickly grabs and maintains one’s attention – a woman is trapped in the desert as she keeps ending up back at her crashed car regardless of what direction she walks in. It’s the sort of narrative that may manifest in a particularly distressing nightmare one feels grateful to wake up from. 

Despite the heightened element inherent to this premise, there’s something unnervingly relatable about the horror evoked in Desert Road. A domino effect of ordinary problems like having your car breakdown and running of phone battery can happen to anyone, which makes the film’s cascade of horror all the more terrifying. This is undoubtedly a horror film, not one in imagery, but one that taps into something more primal and survival-based. Speaking to the effectiveness of this horror, there are countless horror movie scenarios one would choose to experience firsthand before having to endure the terror in Desert Road.

This terror begins as the young woman driving through the desert blows a tire and suffers a head injury. With her car stuck on a boulder, she walks back to a gas station she visited earlier only to be unnerved by a troubling gas station employee. From there, she makes her way to the outside of an empty factory and then, shockingly, finds herself back at the site of her crashed car somehow. Adding immensely to the effectiveness of this trap our lead character finds herself in is a sturdy sense of geography brought about by director Triplett. The pitch-perfect stretch of desert chosen as the setting for the film has a geography involving the car, the gas station, and the factory that becomes quickly ingrained in the audience’s mind. This is important as it allows the audience to adopt the perspective of the lead character and be similarly perplexed and terrified when the geography no longer makes sense. 

Those who have seen “The Hitch-Hiker” may begin to use that story’s conclusion to theorize as to what’s really going on in Desert Road, but this by no means creates a true understanding of what the film entails. The film is littered with all sorts of creepy interactions and unnerving moments that leaves one simultaneously fascinated and unsettled. When the different pieces of the plot begin to click into place and questions are given answers, the sheer originality and ingenuity of Desert Road’s script shines. The explanations provided as to what is happening are unexpected, both in their narrative creativity and emotional depth they afford. Admittedly, the film’s pacing lags in the third act and there are some lingering head-scratching moments. To dive any deeper would be to get into spoiler territory, so just know that Desert Road ultimately has an ending that delivers, something that many such twisty thrillers cannot say.

Leading the film from beginning to end is Kristine Froseth. The Norwegian-born actress has played roles in Apple TV’s The Buccaneers and NEON’s How to Blow Up A Pipeline, amongst a variety of other projects that have collectively shown her versatility and dynamism in front of the camera. In Desert Road, Froseth carries an immense responsibility as she is featured in every single moment of the film. Froseth’s character is a proxy for the audience and, as such, the audience goes through a range of emotions in the film due to Froseth’s character going through such emotions. It’s an excellent performance and one that affirms Froseth is a performer to look out for.

Several other actors support Froseth in relatively small, yet effective roles. Max Mattern plays a creepy gas station attendant, whose motivations remain a mystery. The legendary Frances Fisher and Beau Bridges, meanwhile, play other individuals our lead interacts with while trapped in the desert. The actors all complement Froseth’s lead performance well and have an extraordinary impact on the film’s emotional heart despite relatively little screen time. 

VERDICT: 8/10

Desert Road draws inspiration from a classic episode of The Twilight Zone, “The Hitch-Hiker,” with a story about a woman perplexingly trapped in the desert. An excellent, captivating premise results in a gripping and suspenseful film that fascinates and terrifies. A variety of twists and turns culminate in an original and creative ending that will undoubtedly warrant repeat viewings from curious audience members. Kristine Froseth captivates as a lead character that features in every moment of the film, while the supporting cast add unexpected emotional depth to the proceedings. With her directorial debut, Shannon Triplett proves that a film so immensely original and innovative can develop from a structure provided by a previous story and that one should exercise caution in driving through the American desert.

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