Somewhere between The Hitcher and High Tension exists Abner Pastoll’s Road Games, a bright, colorful descent into hitchhiking madness. Of course, with the mention of Alexandre Aja’s *arguably* mind-bending thriller, one can assume there’s more to Pastoll’s story than meets the eye. A killer terrorizes lonely travelers begging for a quick ride, but his/her identity remains masked, because he/she could be any of the (few) characters we’ve already encountered. For an hour and a half, Pastoll unfolds this countryside”Whodunit” caper – one littered with distracting red herrings – but, herein lies the problem: the mystery itself isn’t very mysterious.
Andrew Simpson stars as Jack, a ride-needing wanderer who can’t seem to catch a break. While seeking transportation, he’s joined by a female companion named Véronique (Joséphine de La Baume), who gets thrown out of a car after bickering with its male driver. Together, the duo ramble along, soaking in France’s summer warmth, until a helpful local finally stops to pick them up.
The man, referred to as Grizard (Frédéric Pierrot), informs the newly acquainted friends that ferries won’t be running for the night, and insists they stay with him and his wife Mary (Barbara Crampton). Véronique seems to be weary of the situation, with a murderer still running free, but Jack sees no harm in a hot meal and a coffee. Of course, after dinner ends on a weirdly ominous note, Jack wakes up to find Véronique gone, and his paranoias begin to spin wildly out of control.
From a visual standpoint, Road Games strikes emphatically through vibrant scenic landscapes, be them luscious, green meadows, or yellow, burnt bails of hay. Grimy genre fare of this nature usually only comes out to play at night, soaking most climactic scenes in murky darkness. Alternatively, Pastoll’s vision plays with a robust palette not typically enjoyed by horror fans (The Final Girls does this very well, too), as reddish hues splatter against complementary colors – not shadowy backdrops. There’s something more artistic about Jack’s attempted escape, and everything starts with this poppy tonal comfort.
But, as many Z-Grade horror movie actresses will remark, beauty only gets you so far. Such is the case of Road Games, an all beauty, no brains thriller that bares its calculations for audiences to see. With so few characters involved, Pastoll attempts to hide his killer in plain sight – something more experienced horror fans will sniff out in mere minutes. Characters are constantly shifting, darting eyes every-which-way to avoid implication, but none of these cheeky antics are ever believable. Maybe that’s on the actors involved, but the games at play here are of a junior varsity level. Fun and intriguing at times, but overly drawn-out in practice.
Simpson, while charismatic, doesn’t play the victim with horrified conviction. One scene, where a hunter (Féodor Atkine) tries to force-feed Jack some soupy dinner, puts the young traveler in suspected danger, but Simpson’s cries for help are weak and impish. His infatuation with Véronique plays better than his attempts to embrace Death’s looming presence, but the most vile moments of Road Games depict a lackadaisical grasp on fear and terror. Had Pastoll’s story been a lusty soirée, Simpson and La Baume’s sexual chemistry would have scorched the screen – but we can get our eroticism elsewhere. In terms of tension, these two come up flaccid.
Barbara Crampton, in a supporting role, embodies a floppy red herring whose constant uncertainty subverts attention instead of drawing it in. Her actions, whether nosily examining Jack’s passport or demanding her husband stop talking of the “serious” killer on the loose (Véronique can’t say “serial,” hence the linguistic pun), are too obviously overplayed. Digestible clues reveal that something is amiss, but both Crampton and her husband too-heavily embrace their wavering, attention-grabbing personas. Pastoll’s attempts at mystifying viewers don’t go unnoticed – they’re just hammily overcompensated. Much like a language barrier that loses messages in translation that’d otherwise clear up questionable situations (half the film is in French, while the other in English).
Road Games suggests something it clearly is not – a battle of wits that pits equal teams against one another. It’s a twisted story that’s not nearly ambitious enough, and doesn’t deliver the complex, intensified watch one ultimately desires. As each pawn is moved meticulously, this charade quickly turns from a foreign chess match into a dumbed-down round of Chutes And Ladders. For some, that’ll surely be enough, but, for others, Pastoll leaves much to be desired.
You’ve hooked me as a filmmaker, sir – now reel me in as a storyteller.
Road Games is far too slight and simple for a premise that starts with a twisted promise. It's more a board game than a chess match.