Desert Road, Shannon Triplett

Hell and Limbo Are Reimagined in Sci-Fi Horror ‘Desert Road’

The same lack of control and uncertainty that hounds Kafka’s Josef. K haunts the lost protagonist in Shannon Triplett’s sci-fi horror Desert Road.

Desert Road
Shannon Triplett
10 March 2024 (SXSW)

Shannon Triplett’s directorial feature debut, Desert Road, borrows from director Martin Scorsese’s advice. When he was teaching in New York University’s undergraduate filmmaking programme in the late 1960s, he would tell his students to make something personal. For Desert Road, Triplett adapts the visceral memory of a frightening experience involving her boyfriend during a vacation in the Californian desert.

Triplett received a telephone call from her boyfriend asking her to pick him up when he “hit a wall” 15 miles into his endurance run, but she struggled to find him. “He was becoming delirious. His phone was dying, we didn’t have good cell service, half the dirt roads were washed out from recent storms, the other half didn’t have names, and the sun was setting. It was getting cold, his body was shutting down, and I couldn’t find him. The desert had turned on us,” writes Triplett in her director’s statement.

Triplett’s real-life experience is repurposed into a less gritty but no less intense story of a young photographer, played by Kristine Froseth, who is leaving behind her broken dreams in Los Angeles. On the long drive back home, a tire blows out. With only a gas station, its creepy attendant, and an eerie factory within walking distance, she is ensnared by mounting setbacks: poor cell service, a low phone battery, and a blocked credit card. Unable to pinpoint where she’s stranded on the hundreds of miles-long desert road, she hears the mysterious sounds of people emerging from the desert as day turns to night.

Her experience is a jumping-off point for a suspenseful and emotionally wrought venture into genre cinema that triggers the common fear of being stranded or lost. Films and books have a history of utilising this fear, including the story of an adolescent teen and her brother stranded in the Australian Outback in Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 masterpiece Walkabout, or Robb White’s 1972 novel, Deathwatch, about a big game hunter who turns on his guide. Then there’s Michaël Dudok de Wit’s 2016 animated tale of a man shipwrecked on an island in The Red Turtle and Robert Zemeckis’ stranded on a deserted island drama, Cast Away (2000). Not to forget William Golding’s 1954 classic novel Lord of the Flies

Desert Road belongs to this narrative tradition and the philosophy of eternal recurrence, which dates back to Ancient Greece and was the subject of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science (1882) and Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85). Indeed, Desert Road continues a tradition, and at the same time, it stands out because of Triplett’s focus on the creativity of blending sci-fi and horror with tragedy of cause and effect. She could have made a grittier survival drama like Rodrigo Cortés 2000 film Buried, set in the open expanse of the hostile desert instead of someone trapped in a coffin underground, or adopt a split point-of-view, or utilized the woman’s delirium to lean more into visceral horror. Instead, she exercises her creativity and focuses on the woman’s disorientating experience as reality falls apart. 

Neither the protagonist nor the audience immediately understands that they’re falling down a rabbit hole, but they realise something isn’t right in the blink of an eye. The stomach lurches with dread, and the mind feels the rush of intellectual stimulation. Triplett continues to nurture the emotional connection between the character and the audience, underpinned by a relatable backstory; her mounting setbacks and our joint perception of reality falling apart stimulate our empathy. 

However, the logic of Desert Road‘s theoretical world-building may conflict with the audience’s understanding of time and space. That aside, after the blowout, things quickly become disorienting as logic slips away, yet the audience, like the character, clings to the hope that we can make sense of it all. 

“I wanted us [the audience] to be on the adventure with our main character, and it’s quite common in modern films that things are explained to the audience,” says Triplett in a virtual interview ahead of the film’s World Premiere at SXSW earlier this year. “In [Desert Road], I wanted us to be on the same page with this woman. She’s confused, so we’re confused. Something is satisfying when she puts a piece of the puzzle together because the audience does, too.”

Desert Road leans towards David Lynch’s dreamscape, where reality is skewed in surreal, mysterious, and surprising ways, yet it never fully ventures to these extremes. As in Lynch’s films, the puzzle in Desert Road is a type of prison in which the premise baits our curiosity, and we become trapped alongside the character trying to find a way out of her dilemma. However, unlike Lynchian nightmares like Eraserhead (1977), Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001), and Inland Empire (2006) – which rely on a surreal logic – Desert Road is in part theoretical, and its logic can be disregarded as incorrect instead of a puzzle to be understood. However, different ideas about time, including Robert Lanza’s concept of Biocentrism, offer an interesting lens through which to view the film. Desert Road is a highly enjoyable sci-fi horror film that makes the audience feel lost and stranded.

Cinema has attempted to offer an alternative vision of “hell” to the one propagated by religious and spiritual beliefs and ancient civilisations. Orson Welles’ 1962 adaptation of Franz Kafka’s 1925 novel, The Trial, is an excellent film. Josef. K (Anthony Perkins) is arrested but is never told the crime he has allegedly committed. The story likens our reality, with its bureaucracy and the social order, to the concept of hell. The same lack of control and uncertainty that hounds Josef. K is part of the woman’s dilemma in Desert Road. Triplett’s film, however, with the inference of eternal recurrence, is also a vision of limbo. 

The woman is at an in-between point, and the limbo-esque presence of the desert road that leads to places is an extension of her existential status. Triplett effectively merges the spatial with the character to emphasise the otherworldliness grounded in the human drama but with a spiritual tilt. The woman is deprived of connection, hope, identity, meaning, and empowerment. Desert Road is partly about the resilient struggle with adversity or building oneself up when life has torn you down, but in the guise of a sci-fi and horror film with the tragedy of cause and effect. Froseth is perfectly cast, filling the character with a gentle but determined resolve. She skirts the line between the youthful pursuit of her dreams and accepting what life is willing to offer her. 

Triplett adopts familiar tropes to build suspense, distrust, and paranoia. Written during the pandemic, Desert Road recognises that we are vulnerable when we can’t understand what’s happening around us and when our sense of time is disrupted. It’s as much a product of Triplett’s frightening real-life experience as it is a response to the anxiety of the pandemic, as well as pulling on certain emotional and cognitive levers to expose our inherent vulnerabilities in narrative archetypes. 

Desert Road is a highly entertaining genre film that rewards a repeat viewing, but its overall success is decided by whether Triplett pins down that often-elusive ending for these types of films. Then, it’s whether she winds up in the audience’s cross-hairs. Desert Road doesn’t convincingly pin down this elusive ending, partly because Triplett plays it safe instead of being bold. In the wrestling business, there’s an emphasis on knowing the finish; in Desert Road, the finish is inherently elusive. 

Desert Road’s world premiere occurred in SXSW’s ‘Narrative Spotlight’ strand. 

RATING 7 / 10