Producers: Jason Allison, Mary Aloe, Tim Doiron, Douglas Falconer, April Mullen, Andre Relis, Chad A. Verdi and James van der Woerd Director: April Mullen Screenplay: Tim Doiron Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Katheryn Winnick, Tommy Lee Jones, Heather Graham, Raymond Cruz, Brendan Fehr, Nicole Steinwedell, Roger Dorman, Tylannie Smith-Scott and Deborah Chavez Distributor: Saban Films
The 1970s were the great age of the paranoid thriller, which flourished in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and the Watergate scandal, but today’s perpetually fraught political situation is an open invitation to resurrect it. “Wander” follows the template of one of the genre’s classics, Alan Pakula’s “The Parallax View” (1974)—but on a much smaller scale and to far lesser effect.
The film begins with a caption expressing sympathy for peoples robbed of their land and mistreated by powerful forces. That’s followed by a prologue in which a young woman climbs from a car crash outside the titular town, only to be felled by what appears to be a bullet to the chest. The sheriff (Raymond Cruz) and medical examiner (Katheryn Winnick), however, are more interested in concealing what’s happened rather than investigating.
Focus then shifts to the story’s protagonist Arthur Bretnik (Aaron Eckhart), an ex-cop emotionally devastated by an auto accident two years earlier in which his daughter died and his wife (Nicole Steinwedell) was left confined to a nursing home. He occasionally works as a PI on cases provided by lawyer Shelley Luscomb (Heather Graham), but mostly co-hosts a conspiracy-centered podcast from his isolated trailer alongside his grizzled confederate Jimmy Cleats (Tommy Lee Jones). When the dead girl’s mother contacts him with news of her daughter’s mysterious demise, Bretnik, assuming something sinister is afoot, goes to Wander to look into things.
Consumed by paranoid fantasies, our disheveled hero stumbles around the town collecting clues to a conspiracy involving explosive chips inserted in the chests of those living there, to be triggered if they attempt to leave. Of course, since he’s unstable from the get-go, it’s uncertain whether his findings are real or hallucinations. And if they’re the former, is he tracking them down on his own, or being fed them for some nefarious purpose?
To reveal specifics would spoil the movie for those interested in discovering what Mulder would identify as “the truth out there” is; suffice it to say that Tim Doiron’s script provides plenty of twists—or what passes for them—on the way to an ending that, like the one Pakula’s film provided and “The X-Files” reiterated year after year, argues that one is right to be suspicious about the way the world works.
Mullen and her craft collaborators—cinematographers Gavin Smith and Russ De Jong, production designer Faye Mullen and editor Luke Higginson—manage to fashion a jittery mood with a feeling of menace around the corner, and Alexandra MacKenzie’s score contributes to the dank atmosphere. She also encourages Eckhart to act up a storm as the unreliable narrator through whose eyes we see what’s going on. By comparison the rest of the cast resolutely keep their composure, providing an emotional contrast to his histrionics. Jones, in particular, relies on his patented shtick of laid-back smugness, but it’s always a pleasure to watch him indulge in it.
Unfortunately, when the payoff comes in “Wander,” it proves far more nebulous, and much less surprising, than one would hope. The limp ending simply doesn’t make up for the uninspired convolutions that precede it.