Ponderously exploring pedestrian notions of the universe and connectedness, while mixing in familiar coming-of-age conflicts of love, death, and loss, and sprinkled with bumbling neo-noir crime and even magical realism, “The Driftless Area” is an overloaded, but generally underwhelming and meandering story about small town existence, fate, and the meaning of life.
Based on the novel by Tom Drury, the story is ostensibly about an unremarkable, luckless 24-year-old man named Pierre (played by an unassertive Anton Yelchin) who returns to life as a bartender in his Midwest hometown after his parents die and gets fatefully involved with a dangerous, but semi-idiotic career criminal named Shane (John Hawkes). It’s hackneyed plot — which feels more contrived and arbitrary than convincing about chance and the mysteries of coincidence — strains to connect disparate characters and their cosmic destinies in any organic or believable manner.
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In one corner, there’s Pierre. Next to him is his best friend Carrie (Alia Shawkat), whose main purpose for existing in this story is to deliver expository backstory (in tired voice over) about Pierre’s unfortunate life. Then there’s the mysterious Stella (Zooey Deschanel), who may or may not have survived a house fire, and is connected with the town’s resident weirdo hermit, the mystical Tim Geer (Frank Langella), who strangely understands everything that happened to her and how to spiritually rectify “her story.” Finally, there’s Shane, who is paid by his boss (Ciaran Hinds) to burn down the house that Stella was randomly staying in. Shane and Pierre meet through happenstance and their quarrel leads to the young man stealing the older thief’s bag of cash, which puts the turgid “tracking down the money” plot into action.
Unremarkably told without much spark, “The Driftless Area” never coalesces in any meaningful or engaging way. The movie lazily conjoins all these players in artificial random circumstances, not unlike a small town “Pulp Fiction,” but nowhere near as funny, inspired, or cleverly written as Quentin Tarantino‘s film.
Aptly named, the wandering ‘Driftless Area’ is listlessly paced, and its non-existent vitality is much like the purgatory like, neither here-nor-there setting of the movie — a humdrum cowpoke town where nothing really happens. Preoccupied with coincidental destiny, accidents, and luck, the movie’s biggest problem is its vagueness and own ambivalence toward itself (apparently a trait in the book that does the movie no favors). Other than Shane attempting to retrieve his money and seek revenge, none of the characters or story beats are assertive or proactive. Even the romance between Pierre and Stella, or the universal conspiring between the woman and the town mystic, seems uncertain. Pierre is a paradox too — bold enough to steal money from a dangerous (though unconscious) man, and seemingly not fearful of reprisal, but as played by Yelchin, he’s too blasé and ambiguous, and fails to make the audience care about his fate.
Written and directed by Zachary Sluser, “The Driftless Area” plays with notions of the self, time, the future, interconnectedness, and righting universal wrongs, but the movie fumbles around in search of profundity and never achieves it. Even at an economic 95 minutes, its inconsequential nature eventually grows increasingly tedious as the enervating movie ambles towards its inevitable and unexceptional conclusion. Featuring a cast that doesn’t seem to possess much chemistry, a half-hearted sense of humor that isn’t very funny, this insipidly rendered story never inspires much of anything in the viewer, and that kind of ambivalence is death in movies. Ultimately, “The Driftless Area” isn’t so much bad as it is trivial and forgettable, but in a day and age of dwindling cinemagoers, and interest in adult storytelling fading from the big screen, its weary insignificance feels all the more criminal. [C-]