Producers: Marc Benardout, Hugh Broder, Jeremy L. Kotin, James Harris and Mark Lane   Director: Jeffrey Darling   Screenplay: Evan M. Wiener   Cast: Jacob Elordi. Zachary Quinto, Patrick J. Adams, Pheonix Notary, Ananyaa Shah, Troy Evans, Alexandra Doke, Nicolette Doke, Christopher Guyton and John Lee Ames Distributor: Vertical

Grade: D+

One would think that a movie about a guy who picks up a hitch-hiker who turns out to be a psychopathic killer would generate some thrills and suspense—remember how Eric Red and Robert Harmon turned the premise into a study of existential dread in “The Hitcher” (the 1986 original, of course, not the inferior remake)?  But “He Went That Way” (a meaningless title, incidentally) manages to transform a potentially exciting idea into an incredibly dull, pointless picture.

It’s based loosely on an incident from the life of Larry Lee Ranes, who was suspected of multiple murders and convicted of one, the killing of Gary Smock, with whom he’d hitched a ride in 1964.  He was found guilty and given a sentence of life imprisonment in Michigan; he died, still in prison, last November at the age of seventy-eight.  Ranes referred to the incident in interviews he gave to Conrad Hilberry, who wrote about him and his brother Danny, also convicted for separate murders, in the 1987 book “Luke Karamazov.”  And it’s been discussed by Dave Pitts, who picked up the nineteen-year old Ranes outside Las Vegas in 1964 on his way to Minnesota; in the back of his Chevy Suburban Carryall was his trained chimp, Spanky, with whom he performed in the Ice Capades.  Ranes threatened him (he would confess to previously killing three men) but, he later recounted, was so entranced by the bond between Pitts and Spanky that he relented; they all drove to Michigan (Ranes was headed for his home town of Kalamazoo, where he would kill Smock), and there they went their separate ways.

In the script by Evan M. Wiener, it’s not only the names that have been changed, though they are.  Pitts has become Jim Goodwin (a buttoned-down Zachary Quinto), who’s on his way to Chicago in an old Carryall that’s having engine trouble.  His career is in trouble too, since Spanky (played, in part, by Phoenix Notary in a very unconvincing costume—elsewhere he’s a puppet, presumably through the special effects non-wizardry ascribed to J. Alan Scott), with whom he appeared on television, is getting old and is no longer in demand.  Larry is renamed Bobby Falls and is played by Jacob Elordi as an unstable James Dean-style poseur who’s just been drummed out of the Air Force, clearly for good psychological reasons; a prologue shows him dumping one of his dead shooting victims out of a car, but now he’s thumbing for a ride outside a remote gas station on Route 66.  Jim’s stopped there to have the engine repaired by the cranky mechanic (Christopher Guyton), who is threatening to run Bobby off with a baseball bat until Goodwin defuses things by offering the kid a ride.

The movie tries to build some tension in a series of episodes as the trio pass through various states on the way to the Windy City.  There’s an encounter with a motel clerk (Troy Evans) who tries to sell Jim a knife, pointing out the dangers of travel; a stop at the shabby trailer of Goodwin’s brother-in-law Saul (Patrick J. Adams), a dissolute priest who owes him money; and a night with two naïve Oklahoma sisters (Alexandra and Nicolette Doke) the guys meet up with at a Tulsa dance hall.  Brief inserts illustrate a bit of Bobby’s past, most notably his killing of two more previous victims.  But as soporifically written by Wiener, limply directed by Jeffrey Darling, sluggishly paced by editor Adam Wills and played by Quinto, Elordi and the colorless supporting cast in a monochromatic fashion (all set to a nondescript score by Nicolas Rosen and Jamie N. Commons), none of them generate any sense of danger or excitement; despite Elordi’s overwrought efforts to come across as charismatically menacing, they just drag along without working up to a climax. 

Nor does the relationship between Jim and Bobby develop any complexity; it’s just a repetitive pattern of Bobby getting upset over something and Jim anxiously trying to cool him down, often by playing off the kid’s fascination with Spanky, whom he’d seen on the tube and considers a lovable celebrity.  There’s also little payoff in the big reveal in Chicago, where Goodwin isn’t actually planning to perform with the chimp in a “private gig” as he insists, but rather provide for the animal’s future in a deal with a mysterious woman (Ananyaa Shah).

And it certainly doesn’t help that this is one of the most unconvincing road trips ever put on screen.  The narrative is supposed to take us through several states, but the movie was shot entirely in southern California, and the production design (Ryan Martin) and cinematography (Sean Bagley) prove singularly unsuccessful in disguising the fact that the locations don’t change much.  Inserting shots of signs blaring “Welcome to Oklahoma,” “Welcome to Missouri” and “Welcome to Illinois” periodically while the landscapes remain obstinately the same and the urban areas indistinguishable from one another doesn’t do the trick.  The costumes by Nancy Gould don’t do much to convince us we’re in the 1960s either.              

It should be noted that Darling, a veteran cinematographer and director of commercials, music videos and shirt films, died in a surfing accident off the Australian coast before “He Went That Way,” his first and only feature, completed post-production.  One can only wish that the picture, put into final shape by his collaborators, were a better tribute to his memory; but it proves a dull slog through muddled narrative territory rather than the nerve-wracking trip through the American heartland that it might have been.