[30 January 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For many, an Academy Award is the apex of an already fine career. It’s an establishing benchmark, a sign from the industry and your peers that you have attained a certain level of import and respect. In theory, it’s an indication of even greater things to come. Yet for many, especially in the Best Supporting Actor and Actress category, it’s the end of the line, a punctuation mark on a professional sentence that lacks a true legitimate closing phrase. Names like Louis Gossett, Jr., Mira Sorvino, and Cuba Gooding, Jr. instantly come to mind, performers with a lot of good work behind them, and some knotty post-Oscar acknowledgments as the result of the win.
The last name on that list has seen his stock fall significantly since asking agent Jerry Maguire to “show him the money.” Producers are apparently ready to show him the direct to DVD path to obscurity if the new release Wrong Turn at Tahoe is any indication of his present trajectory. This serviceable thriller features Gooding, Jr. as the loyal assistant/muscle for a no nonsense crime boss (Miguel Ferrer) who suddenly finds himself in a world of hurt when a well-connected drug dealer winds up dead. Unfortunately, said scumbag was the main income source for a high ranking mafia don (Harvey Keitel) and the resulting blowback has our hero, his employer, and most of the audience in its deadly, gun battle sites.
Written by a former stuntman turned first time scribe and helmed by Franck Khalfoun, responsible for the similarly styled parking garage chiller P2, Wrong Turn at Tahoe is decent, if not definitive. It thinks slow burn is suspense and substitutes obviousness for subtlety and insight. There are lots of open ended elements here, ambiguities which don’t add up to anything remotely engaging or exciting. Gooding, Jr.‘s character, Joshua, apparently has a son who he has pledged things to. We see the actor on the phone constantly calling and confessing his broken promises. Similarly, Ferrer’s Vincent does several things that we never quite comprehend (most revolving around the ‘did she/didn’t she’ nature of his wife’s adultery). He’s apparently a very smart, one step ahead of everyone gangster, and yet apparently falls for the oldest criminal trap in the book.
From unexplained origins between the two (which are only partially addressed by the ending) to inconsistencies in Keitel’s power structure, Wrong Turn at Tahoe wants to believe in its own moody, ambient attitude. But the viewer feels left out in the cold, considering facets and dangling plot points that shouldn’t be there in the first place. Because the narrative itself is so defiantly simple - junkie sells out Vincent, Vincent kills slimeball dope peddler, Keitel’s Nino puts the contract out on Vincent, Joshua stands by his mob man - there’s not a lot of room for nuance. Instead, we get long drives down dark highways, imposing mansions on far away hills, and one too many Tarantino takes.
Indeed, the biggest problem this movie suffers from is the whole Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction tendency toward pointless non-expositional talking. Somehow, the video store clerk turned movie titan can make it work, but Khalfoun and Eddie Nickerson are not quite that skilled. Instead, their ponderous asides, stories about scorpions and frogs/Jupiter and the king of the birds, sound forced and solidly scripted, never once becoming an organic part of the characterization. Similarly, whenever the bad guys stand off in one of those patented talking cure confrontations, their petty F-bomb laced bon mots have none of Tarantino’s wit or invention.
As for the acting, well, it’s rather hard to tell. Ferrer can be imposing and resolutely evil when he wants, but Vincent often appears half asleep, as if the director wanted to emphasize and contrast this calm demeanor with the man’s murderous intentions. It doesn’t work. Keitel, on the other hand, looks so old and decrepit that it’s hard to believe he could manage his Jersey Shore inspired crew, let alone satisfy his sexy Italian accented trophy wife. Along the fringe, ancillary turns by Johnny Messner and Michael Sean Tighe add little to our appreciation of the stakes involved.
Gooding, Jr., on the other hand, finds a really nice balance between passivity and possibility. He’s never really fully engaged here, using his piercing gaze as a means of registering almost all of his emotional cues. When it comes time to drop the façade and fight, he’s quite capable in that arena as well. Indeed, the entire last act of Wrong Turn at Tahoe is a stakeout and shoot out at Nino’s home, and while we appreciate the inference and lack of slo-mo glass flying histrionics, the modern moviegoer will find such easy going assassination…dull? Pointless? Lacking inherent power or visual panache? There are not the kinds of lingering feelings you want in your edge of the seat entertainment.
Yet one can’t help but begrudgingly appreciate Wrong Turn at Tahoe. At least it tries for something different and iconic, while finding limited success at either. It’s not out to knock your socks off so much as get under your skin and slowly worm its way around your nerves. Again, it never really manages said motive, but give it a gold star for trying. The acting is universally passable and Khalfoun has a decent eye for lingering wet street night scenes. Could we have used a little more clarity as to why Joshua wants to retire? Sure. Could Vincent have made a better decision about the drug dealer? Yeah. Should anyone trust a junkie, no matter how much of an ‘old neighborhood’ history you have with them? Are you kidding? In essence, Wrong Turn at Tahoe is film noir without the pulsating plot undercurrent or aesthetic flare. The result is all mood and no movement.