CATEGORIES Independent, Thrillers, SXSW, Theatrical Reviews, Cinematical Indie, Reviews, SXSW Film Festival, Cinematical
The classically simple premise of Shuttle sounds like a horror movie, tapping into an uncommon fear you push back into the corner of your mind, marked "unlikely -- I hope." Best friends Mel (Peyton List) and Jules (Cameron Goodman) arrive at an airport late one rainy night, returning home from a trip to Mexico. Mel is feeling sick and unsteady on her feet, giving smooth-talking Seth (James Snyder) an opening to start flirting with the two young ladies, and forcing his traveling buddy Matt (Dave Power) to tag along.
The attractive foursome end up together on a shuttle mini-bus, along with a very nervous man in a business suit (Cullen Douglas). The driver (Tony Curran) takes an odd detour through a bad neighborhood; when questioned, he insists he knows where he's going. As the blocks of abandoned buildings roll by, the kids become agitated. The increasingly tense atmosphere on the shuttle is ratcheted up by a near-collision with a speeding car, and the driver's maneuvers to avoid a wreck result in a flat tire. Matt volunteers to help the driver change the tire, and that's when things really start going to hell for the shuttle's unlucky passengers.
The driver transforms into a determined and demented madman, out on his own twisted planet where he thinks he can get away with kidnapping people. The passengers are forced to buckle up with seat belts that cannot be unlocked, and the shuttle careens through a lonely world hidden from the eyes of god and man. The streets and sidewalks are empty, the buildings are dark and forlorn; the stuffy confines of the shuttle become the entire universe for the driver and his passengers.
Despite the dark premise, brutality, and bloody violence, Shuttle is not a horror movie, at least not one that would interest most hard-core horror fans. For one thing, the unnamed driver is too bland a character to be a convincing serial killer. He's a blunt force rather than a sharp edge. He never comes across as an expert in what he's doing, and veers strangely between menace and incompetence. Like many cinematic serial killers, he's seemingly impervious to pain and body damage, but he acts more like an older brother annoyed with his younger sibling's childish antics.
Edward Anderson wrote and directed. The pieces in the script all fit together neatly in the end, but the narrative trip is convoluted and feels cobbled together from different sources. There's nothing in the movie that's obviously derivative, yet it gives off a shopworn, secondhand vibe. The direction doesn't help: the tension ebbs and flows, constantly interrupted by flawed logic, as in, "What the hey? Why would he / she do that?" The camera work is faux-documentary style, but it's so jittery that it's difficult to follow the action and easy to lose track of who is doing what to whom.
The concluding scenes, while potentially powerful in their own right, seem tacked on from another, deeper film. (Imagine how you'd feel if you were watching a movie about a road trip from Los Angeles to New York in which the action suddenly shifts from the open road to the friendly skies aboard an airplane.) Ultimately, the story makes a certain amount of sense, yet I still left the movie feeling deeply unsatisfied.
The performances are fine, with Peyton List standing out in the "take charge" role, and the rest of the small cast doing good jobs with what they have.
I suspect that Shuttle plays out best if you haven't seen very many horror movies or thrillers -- the woman sitting next to me at the midnight screening was holding on tight to her male companion. Of course, it could be that I'm simply too jaded, but the beats are too familiar and the twists too routine to provide much surprise for genre fans.
As demonstrated in the post-screening Q&A, Anderson and his cast had higher aspirations for what they wanted to accomplish. Personally, I don't feel they got there, but the movie will make me think twice about getting on an airport shuttle bus in the future.