You can be two things inside a post-apocalyptic wasteland devoid of morality according to writer/director Chris von Hoffmann: stoic badass on a journey of vengeance or unhinged cartoon cannibal with tongue readier to lick flesh than gun is to blow a hole in someone’s head. There’s no room for anything in between whether compassionate souls trying to survive amongst malicious wild cards or cautious, anxiety-ridden kids in way over their heads. Either way you’re going to die — not in an esoteric “we all die” sort of way, but a brutal demise brought on by that stoic badass or muscle-bound kook maniacally laughing with his/her tongue on your cheek. At least you can rest well knowing your killer will die soon too. It’s the little things after all.

So what do you do while awaiting death in such a nihilistic purgatory? Well, the characters in Drifter move straight towards it with extremely labored steps and an overbearing atmosphere of bloat hoping to feign suspense, arms wide for an embrace. That’s the best way I can describe its 86-minute run-time considering it feels more like two hours. And that’s despite ten or so dead bodies, five crazed man-eaters, and multiple monologues desperate to be as important as they sound. This should be an intense ride to oblivion or perhaps even a satirical romp chock full of self-indulgent camp, but it proves to be neither. Instead it’s merely an adventure of self-discovery for a character we aren’t even sure we’re supposed to care about until halfway through.

This young man is Miles Pierce (Aria Emory, who also co-wrote). He’s nowhere near being the type of tough guy necessary to stay alive in this world, but he tries for older brother Dominic (Drew Harwood) regardless. Miles is the first person we see, gun drawn and afraid despite the words leaving his mouth seeming cold and demanding. The result is a hole in his hand and a stern talking to from his brother, one example of many where he’s told to be a man. Dom is a proponent of tough love, his abrasiveness a product of the things he’s been forced to do now that law and order have been destroyed. He leaves Miles in dangerous situations long enough to inflict injury before coming to the rescue.

The byproduct of this penchant for throwing Miles into the fire is stylish conflict for von Hoffman to reveal his talent for visual excitement, split-screens, and violent outbursts with precision accuracy. He revels in letting blood splatter onto the ever-increasingly battered body of Miles, Dom’s heroic actions proving robotic in their clinical nonchalance. But while it’s cool to watch, it can’t help but also feel unnecessary in the context of the story — if there’s a story at all. Supposedly the brothers are out in the desert with one of the few working cars in America to track down their father’s killer. We learn this in the midst of a conversation consisting of yet another instance of Dom talking down to Miles. We never hear about it again.

I’m talking 45 minutes of Dom’s holier than thou approach. Two guys driving against desolate scenery with a couple spats versus homicidal locals waking us with gunfire. The camera’s always focused on Dom as the alpha and we ignore Miles as deadweight dragging his brother down. If not for him Dom would have more bullets, energy, and food. He wouldn’t be constantly risking his own life, talking to mute strangers ambling down the road (Jack G. Davis), or searching for a hospital. I won’t lie and say I didn’t wish Miles would finally die so Dom could have two familial deaths to drive him forward. But that doesn’t happen. In fact, Miles eventually becomes our lead character. I’m sorry, but I just never cared enough to buy it.

This means that the second half circus with Doyle (James McCabe), Latos (Anthony Ficco), and Sasha (Rebecca Fraiser) injecting much-needed entertainment proves meaningless in context to the first. Besides giving Miles a reason to “be a man” — something he still doesn’t do until the filmmakers render their strongest character (Monique Rosario‘s Vijah) a damsel in distress — we’re merely watching an homage to Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It isn’t a subtle callback either when you factor in a blood-soaked woman (Melissa Raquel) standing in the middle of the road, ravaged by shock to say, “They killed them all and will kill you next.” Here’s Sally Hardesty warning them to go no further. Lucky for the Pierces, they won’t find anyone as formidable as Leatherface when they do.

I don’t want to be too hard on the whole, though, because there is some merit. For an obviously low-budget production, von Hoffman does a good job creating his world. Shades of Mad Max enter to counter the notes of horror and there are some visually appealing transitions to earn the realization that this young director could go places with a script that wasn’t so paper-thin. Fraiser and Ficco go full-on nuts in the best way had this been a comedy, but their over-the-top performances overshadow McCabe as their leader Doyle nonetheless since his attempts to stay grounded prove sillier as a result. Harwood is extra-strength steely for better or worse while Emory embraces his role’s vulnerability and early surrender, the latter’s complexity only outdone by Rosario.

The real trouble therefore lies with the script. We get flashes of intriguing exposition that go nowhere and anticipatory teases of “the main course” that never happen. We try our hardest to invest in what’s coming, the lack of its arrival therefore more pronounced. The reason the Pierces enter Doyle’s city is coincidence, something augmented by their stumbling inside with less than half the film remaining. It feels like a stopgap, a quick respite before their real journey towards the man that wronged them can restart. So when it becomes their destination, everything that follows ends up hollow in its out-of-nowhere usurpation of plot. It delivers some deranged fun, but not nearly enough to forget how the original path was derailed for what ultimately amounts to nothing.

Drifter hits limited release on Friday, February 24th and VOD February 28th.

Grade: C-

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