In movies, small towns are too often populated with inbred, murderous hillbillies, but there’s nevertheless a wealth of interesting, seldom-explored and considerably more believable stories to tell about them. “Bad Turn Worse” offers audiences little that they haven’t seen in one form or another — small-town kids, dreams of escape and the interference of local criminals — but in the hands of screenwriter Dutch Southern and directors Simon and Zeke Hawkins, its familiar components come together in a unique way. A crime thriller rich with emotional resonance, “Bad Turn Worse” offers the kind of clean, elegant storytelling whose emotional impact eclipses the cosmetic horrors of its counterparts while announcing the arrival of considerable new filmmaking talents.
Jeremy Allen White (“Afterschool”) plays Bobby, a recent high school graduate who is set to head off to the same college as his best friend B.J.’s (Logan Huffman) girlfriend Sue (Mackenzie Davis). B.J., who’s being left behind in their south Texas home town, convinces them to head to Mexico for a last hurrah. But upon their return, B.J. reveals that he stole the money for the getaway from his and Bobby’s boss Gif (Mark Pellegrino), a sociopath with ties to a local gangster named Big Red (William Devane). After Gif finds out, he demands they repay him by stealing Red’s regular shipment of drug money, and that they bring Sue along since she helped spend his money. Understandably apprehensive about what they are being forced to do, Bobby and Sue scramble to try to figure out an alternate plan, but the closeness that their mutual fear inspires begins to arouse B.J.’s suspicions, creating even more tension as the robbery gets closer.
Although the dialogue between the teenage characters sometimes tends towards preciousness, Southern creates a vivid and interesting landscape of characters, which the Hawkins brothers beautifully project against the provincial barrenness of Corpus Christi, Texas. Bobby, a kid who doesn’t think much of himself but looks clear-eyed at the boredom, poverty and ignorance in the town, hopes to find a greater purpose — much less passion — with his escape. B.J., on the other hand, is a big fish afraid of being in an even bigger pond, and he idolizes Gif without realizing how evil and poisonous his boss’ authority really is. Sue, meanwhile, is not just the catalyst for a rift between Bobby and B.J., but a symbol for the former’s aspirations and the latter’s fears, as she hints at the potential that mostly goes untapped in their boring, blue-collar jobs.
Strictly speaking, the crime element works best as a metaphor for the inevitable and inescapable ties that often keep people trapped in cities that they feel are too small for them, but even in literal terms, the sense of menace Gif and his mostly-unseen boss Red projects is pervasive and palpable. And Pellegrino is chillingly effective as the thuggish middleman, proxy ruler of a fiefdom that really belongs to Red, but he makes the impending danger feel real, while his role provides the risk — and the biggest obstacle — to Sue and Bobby’s exodus. But the three young actors at the center of the story anchor its tension in compelling believability, being about exactly as smart and mature as they should be while dealing with circumstances far more perilous and “adult” than they’ve ever faced.
Sue is just the kind of girl that both boys would fall for, despite their myriad differences — Bobby admires her intelligence and sensitivity, while B.J. is eager to own what must be the town’s smartest, prettiest girl — and Davis gives her substance enough to deserve their romantic rivalry, not to mention her own identity. And White, looking like a “Footloose”-era Chris Penn, gives Bobby just the right kind of self-awareness — smart enough to recognize the town isn’t enough for him, but too naïve to avoid its perils — and makes the audience understand his plight. And Huffman’s work with the flashiest character of the three is equally impressive, first cultivating our disdain for his complacent, insular confidence, and then drawing our sympathies as Sue and Bobby’s betrayal signals his imprisonment, alone, in a town that has nothing to offer him.
Gorgeously photographed and featuring a strong and consistently well-pitched score, the Hawkins’ film is a great calling card for securing them future work. There’s a functionality to their work that doesn’t add too many unnecessary flourishes, but it exudes a grace that, again, elevates what might have been purely cliched material to something more special. Ultimately as harrowing as any backwoods horror story but enhanced by a humanity those stories will almost never have, “Bad Turn Worse” is a terrific film, precisely because it takes the components of a traditional thriller, approaches them from a less frequently explored perspective, makes them feel relatable and then elevates them with the right amount of style. [B]
This is a reprint of our review from Fantastic Fest 2013.