'Wander': Film Review

WANDER
Courtesy of Deauville American Film Festival
Loses its way.

Aaron Eckhart, Tommy Lee Jones, Katheryn Winnick and Heather Graham star in April Mullen's paranoid thriller, which screened at the Deauville American Film Festival.

Imagine the Pizzagate guy was the main character in a movie. Then imagine that guy was played by Aaron Eckhart, with Tommy Lee Jones playing his conspiracy theorizing, podcasting accomplice. Then imagine those two knuckleheads set out to save a small town from a deadly deep state plot involving microchips, exploding organs and camerawork so hyperactive you may need to take several Ritalin before the screening.

If you can imagine all of this, then you can picture Wander, an overtaxing paranoid thriller from director April Mullen (Badsville) and writer-producer Tim Doiron that made its world premiere at the Deauville festival. Recently picked up by Saban Films, who will distribute in North America and the U.K., it’s hard to see this bona fide B-grade effort doing major theatrical business — although watching it with a mask, as was required in Deauville, perhaps added a welcome layer of suspense. (Will this movie kill me?)

Between all the aggressive handheld shots, drone shots, extreme close-ups and jump cuts we find Arthur Bretnik (Eckhart), an ex-cop turned private investigator who makes a living helping out victims of various conspiracies. If this part isn’t clear enough, Bretnik actually has a badge that says “Private Investigator.” There are also a dozen whiplash flashbacks showing, over and over again, how his life as a police detective was destroyed by a car accident that left his daughter dead and his wife (Nicole Steinwedell) catatonic.

The frantic filmmaking is obviously meant to reflect our hero's frantic mind, but it winds up giving you a migraine and actually undermines the whole setup: If Bretnik is already this crazy then why should we even bother following him all the way down the rabbit hole? The fact that Eckhart tends to overdo most of his scenes adds fuel to the fire, with the camera zipping into his goggle-eyed expression as Bretnik finds yet another new clue.

The case he’s chasing involves a mysterious town in the desert called, yup, Wander, and what appears to be some sort of The Running Man-style security system whereby anyone who tries to escape gets their chest blown open by a micro-sized bomb. Such a gory device could prove suspenseful if Mullen held a shot for longer than a few seconds (she does so in the somewhat promising opening sequence), or if anything else we were watching made sense at all, or if the supporting characters — cops, FBI agents, an immigrant mom — didn’t have the consistency of cardboard.

As the Alex Jones-style radio show host Jimmy Cleats, Jones mostly hams it up, wearing a selection of garrish shirts that could probably qualify him for the Boogaloo movement. The cast is rounded out by Katheryn Winnick of The Vikings, in a role mostly hidden by a hat and sunglasses, and Heather Graham, who plays Bretnik’s confidant and attorney.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Wander is that, as much as it tools with the viewer until the very last shot, tossing out tons of red herrings and false leads, it never really trusts in the viewer’s intelligence. There’s a voiceover by Eckhart explaining every single move (“There’s a scrapyard, on the edge of town” —  cut to a scrapyard on the edge of town), and lots of references made to phenomena (“migration, border control”) meant to ground the film in contemporary political realities, but that ultimately feel like brash attempts to give this nonsense some kind meaning. Is it all happening in Bretnik’s deranged mind or is this actually for real? Do we really care?

Production companies: WANGO Films, VMI Worldwide, Aloe Entertainment, Don Kee Productions, Falconer Pictures, Verdi Productions 
Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Katheryn Winnick, Tommy Lee Jones, Heather Graham, Raymond Cruz, Brendan Fehr, Nicole Steinwedell 
Director: April Mullen
Screenwriter: Tim Doiron
Producers: Jason Allison, Mary Aloe, Tim Doiron, Douglas Falconer, April Mullen, Andre Relis, Chad A. Verdi, James van der Woerd
Executive producers: Tamer Abaza, Jeffrey Bohn, Bill Bromiley, Craig Chapman, Christelle Conan, Roger Dorman, Adam Falkoff, Ameer Fawaz, Franchesca Lantz, Angela Plagmann, Jonathan Saba, Charles Saikaley, Michael S. Smith, Chad A. Verdi Jr., Michelle Verdi
Director of photography: Russ De Jong
Costume designer: Ursula Rochester
Editor: Luke Higginson
Composer: Alexandra MacKenzie
Venue: Deauville American Film Festival
Sales: VMI Worldwide 

94 minutes