Russell (AJ Bowen) is a good guy. We know because his joint rideshare driver helps a customer by carrying her giant wreath to the door before refusing a tip with a genuine “Merry Christmas.” You kind of have to be if you’re working a thankless job on the biggest holiday of the year so you won’t go insane before igniting a killing spree. “Good” doesn’t equal “saint,” however. He’s not going to pass up a couple hundred dollars when the next fare (Sophie Dalah’s Charlotte) asks him to wait for her without wanting to waste time putting in a second destination. And he’s not above massaging a couple hundred more out by saying he’ll have to cancel plans to comply. So don’t believe he’s innocent of what transpires next.
Complicity is one thing, but active participation is different. Russell watches Charlotte run out of the house with a mini suitcase while yelling for him to drive and he willingly hits the gas. He can tell himself it was some chivalrous impulse after seeing her bloody lip, but we know he kept going because of the moment’s mix of fear and excitement. That’s enough, considering what’s happened with his life (divorced, screwed over by an ex-business partner, and lonely). After a series of fares spanning quiet journeys and hoagie-eaters, it’s nice to have someone with some fire in the car to spice up his day—even if most of her jokes come at his expense. The extra cash makes it worthwhile all on its own.
Directors Brad Baruh and Meghan Leon (who also wrote the script) know that’s not enough to keep Night Drive interesting, though. And while the adventure eventually reveals what was so important that Charlotte had to orchestrate her heist, talking about its ramifications would be a disservice to what proves a very unexpected final act. That’s why they decide to bring “Frank” (Scott Poythress) in first. He’s the guy that Russell accidentally runs over while admiring Christmas decorations. Does Charlotte let him call the police? Not while that mysterious box is in her possession. So she calms Russell down, helps him carry the body into the car, and does whatever’s necessary to steer things back on course without ever batting an eye.
Here he is freaking out with good reason while Charlotte laughs and jokes as though nothing unusual occurred. Their antagonistic yet fun rapport suddenly shifts from Russell thinking she deals in good-natured sarcasm to wondering if she’s a full-blown psychopath. Either way, they have to come up with a plan to dispose of the body. Cue more comical scenarios of Russell becoming increasingly loquacious as he unravels and Charlotte becoming creepily more sadistic and you know the tone being struck. While there are a few twists and turns to keep things fresh, a low budget forces the action to remain dialogue-heavy and more or less focused on this single necessity. Never redundant, it can get a little bit slow.
Until, of course, events push Russell too far to merely go along with the escalating danger Charlotte seems unfazed about stomaching. He’ll make her tell him what’s in that box—then all bets are off. What she says it is sounds impossible and he’s got no choice but to be skeptical considering everything that’s happened, but the slim chance she’s telling the truth ensures he can’t just walk away. It’s the perfect quandary wherein Baruh and Leon have the potential to go one of two ways: turn this thing towards science fiction and place a happy ending on the table or stick with cynicism for a nightmarish descent that Russell will never escape. That uncertainty finally grips us tight enough to lean forward with anticipation.
That’s not to say the first two-thirds of Night Drive weren’t thrilling in their own right. The suspense was simply emptier then because the outcome had zero room to escape being generic whichever way the chips fell. Our enjoyment was therefore seeing how far Dalah would press Bowen’s buttons and whether or not he had a breaking point. The suitcase is thus a game-changer—deus ex machina or not. It lets us rethink everything that occurred as well as rethink everything that still could. It also provides Russell the opportunity to steal the upper hand of their dynamic. We spend so much time hypothesizing what Charlotte is ultimately going to do that his unforeseen ability to find the courage to even the playing field introduces many more variables.
Regardless, it still all hinges on those performances, in large part because so much time is spent within the straightforward drama. If Bowen and Dalah can’t keep us entertained and invested through the familiar bits, it doesn’t matter how crazy Baruh and Leon get at the eleventh hour. I would have liked that shift to have happened earlier so as not to suffer the whiplash inherent to films that only come together because of what we haven’t yet been told, but I can’t deny its effectiveness. Even though I knew these characters and could guess their every clichéd reaction beforehand, both actors bought into their roles and kept me smiling. You can forgive a lot when that happens and even more when a (mostly) satisfying payoff follows.
Night Drive hits limited theaters, VOD & Digital HD on August 6.