Producers: Matt O’Neill, Atif Malik and Francis Galluppi   Director: Francis Galluppi   Screenplay: Francis Galluppi   Cast: Jim Cummings, Jocelin Donahue, Richard Brake, Nicholas Logan, Faizon Love, Michael Abbot Jr., Gene Jones, Robin Bartlett, Sierra McCormick, Connor Paolo, Ryan Masson, Alex Essoe, Sam Huntington, Jon Proudstar, Barbara Crampton, Robert Broski and Scarlett Olson   Distributor: Well Go USA

Grade: B

It doesn’t take much to see the influence of early Tarantino and the Coen brothers in Francis Galluppi’s debut feature, but there are worse models to follow, and though “The Last Stop in Yuma County” sputters at times, overall it proves a cunning pressure cooker of a thriller with a streak of mordant humor to season the simmering stew of menace and violence.

Except for a concluding scene on the highway, the movie’s set in a single locale—the run-down Arizona truck stop of the title—and an unspecified past, apparently sometime in the seventies. It begins with a nebbishy, slightly off knife salesman (Jim Cummings) stopping for gas, only to learn from burly station attendant Vernon (Faizon Love) that the delivery truck’s been delayed (indeed, we quickly learn, permanently, though Vernon doesn’t know that) and the pumps are dry.  So our presumed protagonist winds up at the adjacent diner that pretty Charlotte (Jocelin Donahue), just dropped off by her sheriff husband Charlie Cadell (Michael Abbott Jr.), has opened for the day.  The place advertises as its specialty a world-famous rhubarb pie, and the shabby motel next door is understandably guestless. 

After some pleasantries between them, the place gets two more reluctant customers: glowering Beau (Richard Brake) and febrile Travis (Nicholas Logan), who happen to be a couple of bank robbers with their latest haul in the trunk of their car.  They plan to wait for the gasoline delivery too, but the situation gets complicated when Charlotte and the salesmen become aware of who they are and others periodically arrive: Robert (Gene Jones), a grumpy old Texan and his wife Earline (Robin Bartlett); Miles (Ryan Masson), a young guy with outlaw pretensions, accompanied by his would-be moll Sybil (Sierra McCormick); a loquacious local rancher Pete (Jon Proudstar).   Even Charlie’s callow young deputy Gavin (Connor Paolo) stops by for some coffee.

Is it necessary to add that the air conditioner is on the fritz and everybody is sweltering in the heat (though, in one of the film’s failings, most of the patrons, except for Pete, don’t really look like they’re sweating all that much—maybe it’s that big fan)?

As writer, director and editor Galluppi skillfully ratchets up the tension in the uncomfortably claustrophobic situation he’s created, aided by Charlie Textor’s lived-in production design, Mac Fisken’s slick cinematography and Matthew Compton’s throbbing score (scantily employed, but bolstered by some great period needle drops), as well as performances that are hardly layered (an early attempt to give the salesman and Charlotte a back story is perfunctory) but capture the core of each admittedly stereotypical character.  The only scenes that really stumble are the interludes set in the sheriff’s office, where the bumptious Charlie spars with his put-upon secretary Virginia (Barbara Crampton) and sometimes with Gavin over the radio while remaining oblivious to what’s happening.  Meant to be comical, they merely slow things down.

To compensate there are moments of dark humor in the diner sequences, which culminate in a multiple Mexican standoff that would probably make Tarantino salivate in its combination of absurdity and horror.  And just when you think that Galluppi has run out of gas himself, he adds a last act that adds to the tension and horror as another young couple, David (Sam Huntington) and his pregnant wife Sarah (Alex Essoe), stumble into the gas station along with their baby just as the greed of the last person standing takes over and before Charlie finally arrives on the scene.  Galluppi manages to meet audience demands with an explosive finale in which the long-expected gas truck at long last takes center stage.     

This low-budget bit of cinematic pulp may not be a classic in the middle-of-nowhere thriller genre—think the young Spielberg’s “Duel,” which did more with less.  But it will do just fine until something better comes along, and you might just have to wait longer than the trapped patrons do for that wayward tanker.