A Perfect Getaway
Timothy Olyphant, Milla Jovovich, Steve Zahn, Marley Shelton, Kiele Sanchez, Chris Hemsworth Katie Chonacas
US theatrical: 7 Aug 2009 (General release)
UK theatrical: 14 Aug 2009 (General release)
It’s apt that A Perfect Getaway begins with a video image. Newlyweds Cydney (Milla Jovovich) and Cliff (Steve Zahn) are cruising along Hawaiian back roads, extolling their good fortune. As he’s driving, she points their nifty new videocamera—at him, at herself, at the ocean and mountains and perfect sky. In between, she looks back at tape already made—wedding guests offering congratulations and encouragement. “I think they just wanted to start off their lives together with some kind of adventure!”
And so they will. The video sets up the movie’s frank understanding of itself as formula. The devices are all routine. The teeny-frame-image with red REC in the corner, the happy-happy couple rehearsing what’s already happened, the fabulous backdrop and the retread dialogue—it’s all winky and Scream-like. Just because you know what’s coming doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it.
Per usual, Cydney and Cliff have not seen the same movies you have. And so, at each step off their journey into Kauai’s tourist-ready jungle counts, they run across bad omens they can’t interpret. Shopping at a faux-rustic store for supplies, they giggle and hug, while the clerks look vaguely shady, or maybe not. As they pull out, their tire releases a newspaper trapped beneath, the headline just the sort that tends to pop up in movies about attractive young people in imminent danger: “Young Couple Butchered in Honolulu.” Giddy and distracted by each other’s tongues and the trails to come, Cliff and Cydney don╒t even notice it—but a hard-zoomy close-up ensures that you do.
You also notice, of course, that Cydney and Cliff are tourists, recently deemed deserving slasher bait (see: Turistas, The Ruins). As such they serve as simultaneously as your point of emotional entry and dread, as you identify with them and also worry over their naòvete. “Noting bad happens in Hawaii, right?” chirps Cliff, even as you roll your eyes. It won’t be long before, as you’ve seen in the trailer, he and his pretty new Mrs. will be panting and sweating their way over mountain paths, bloodied and panicky as they do their best to escape unseen, fast-moving assailants, smartly hectic camerawork—and a few well-conceived split screens—enhancing the experience.
It’s a formula, and that’s the point. You’re ready to react when the camera lurches precipitously over a cliff, a shadow moves through the nighttime trees, a creepy hitchhiker keeps his face just out of frame. Here, at least, Cliff and Cydney get a clue, exchanging worried looks during as they regret having stopped to pick up Cleo (Marley Shelton) and Kale (Chris Hemsworth), whose white-trashy affects and beat-up backpacks suggest right off that they’re Trouble with a Big T. When Cleo offers up photos of their vacation, recalling Cydney and Cliff’s own devoted self-documentation, Cydney feigns interest in the one showing “us doing the deed in Oahu.”
Cydney looks a little discomfited here, and so the open and prideful display of sex starts to seem a sign of iniquity. No sooner are they rid of the sinister hicks than they meet another sexy body. He appears fortuitously, of course, just as they’re feeling nervous about navigating a very narrow path, and so they’re not unhappy to get help from Nick (Timothy Olyphant), a mighty-abbed Iraq war veteran with a big old shrapnel scar in his scalp. Calling himself an “American Ninja,” Nick appears either heaven-sent or entirely devious: either way, he helps to multiply the movie’s terms: someone in the mountains is killing honeymooners, and he is, as his girlfriend Gina (Kiele Sanchez) says more than once, “really hard to kill.”
Cydney and Cliff to see him as heaven-sent, for the time being, hoping that if they hang with him, they’ll be protected against them roadkillsters. Their uncertainties about Nick are confirmed when they meet Gina, lithe and gloriously naked as she sunbathes, and crazy-sexy-in-love with her gorgeous “man in full.” Yes, she’s been waiting a while for him to pop the question, but she knows he will, someday. In the meantime, she admires how he sets up camps, hikes like a pro, and hunts goats, while he’s equally proud of her skills at cutting up farm animals, developed during her Savannah, Georgia childhood.
As much as Gina dotes on Nick, Cliff starts to distrust him: he’s a little too eager to cut things up. The ante in the men’s relationship goes up when Cydney announces that her beloved is a “screenplay writer” (“Actually, we’re called screenwriters,” Cliff footnotes). Nick’s impressed, and begins tossing out story ideas based on his own life. It helps that he’s also seen a lot of movies, so he knows what counts as tension and what makes a good action sequence. Where Cliff sometimes seems unsure of even the most obvious plot turns, Nick anticipates, and more importantly, appreciates, both the conventions and the surprises that shape the formula. Whether or not you believe that he stormed Saddam’s palace, he does tell a good story. And for that, you’re grateful.