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Sundance Review | A Wacky Roadtrip in Calvin Lee Reeder’s “The Oregonian”

Sundance Review | A Wacky Roadtrip in Calvin Lee Reeder's "The Oregonian"

Calvin Lee Reeder has been churning out intensely psychedelic short films for several years, borrowing liberally from vintage grindhouse movies while turning the genre on its head. In concise wonders like “The Farm” and “The Rambler,” Reeder places his elaborate, unsettling audio-visual design on par with plot, combining a dark comic sensibility with legitimately frightening images. Unsurprisingly, “The Oregonian,” Reeder’s first feature-length project, extends this bizarre stylistic proclivity, although the director’s familiar approach doesn’t make this zany midnight movie any less delectably strange.

The story of sorts opens with a woman (Reeder regular Lindsay Pulsipher) waking up in front of the wheel of her car in the immediate aftermath of a car accident. Soaked in blood and noticing two bodies nearby, she wanders down the woodsy road in shock, screaming for help. A loud shrieking sound dominates the soundtrack as she drops to her knees in agony. Everything fades to white — and then she’s walking again, following a road to nowhere, populated by nobody, save for the occasional horrific apparition.

From that structurally alarming opener, “The Oregonian” proceeds into an increasingly disturbing, wholly experimental narrative. The woman copes with visions of a demonic old woman in red, whose elusive appearance might have something to do with the wandering crash survivor’s murky past. Later, she hitches a ride from a mute stranger who unleashes red and black urine at a pit stop. At some point, she has a flashback to an earlier instance, on a remote farm with her husband, whose suspicions of her infidelity lead him to turn against her and suffer an abrupt demise. Back in what appears to be the present, she stumbles into a trailer full of weirdos guzzling gasoline, and watches a group of hyperventilating old women drool black liquid before suffering from the same grotesque affliction. The whole thing is rather awesomely cryptic.

Reeder excels at creating an organic drift between these scenes, exploring subconscious associations and hideous encounters with morbid events disassociated from any discernible context. Reeder has cited Nicolas Roeg and Alejandro Jodorowsky as his underlying influences, both of which make sense: The director nails the psychological thrills of the former and the random, batshit insane development of the latter. But at this early stage of his career, Reeder seems practically frightened by the prospects of story structure, and fails to put all his compelling fragments together.

Alternately creepy, puzzling and assaulting on the senses, at best “The Oregonian” functions as a nightmarish headtrip with ample doses of dark comedy. The madness, however, can’t sustain itself, and eventually the movie blurs together into frenzied avant-garde tropes that suggests a gothic twist on Stan Brakhage’s “Dog Star Man” series.

Despite the eccentric flourishes, it’s certainly never boring. Reeder remains one of the most promising young American horror directors, maintaining a distinct aesthetic while constantly expanding his oeuvre. His command over the medium is undeniable. He just has to work on figuring out exactly what he wants to make it do.

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Genre-friendly festivals will eat it up. Distributors won’t, although Magnolia’s Magnet label or IFC could provide good places to expand Reeder’s appeal beyond the festival circuit.

criticWIRE grade: B+

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