The element of surprise, especially if it’s a great one, is something that should always be welcome in cinema. Case in point is Alex Pettyfer (I Am Number Four, Magic Mike) an actor who had a straight shot to the Hollywood A-list before taking a several year detour. That change of direction lead him to Back Roads and, if anything, we’re the beneficiaries of an inspired and immersive narrative.
Harley Altmyer (Alex Pettyfer) is working two dead end jobs, barely scraping two nickels together to support his three younger sisters. His mother Bonnie (Juliette Lewis) is living out her life in jail after shooting her husband, leaving Harley as the sole breadwinner in this rural Pennsylvania domicile.
Understandably feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders, Harley is often closed off and unaffectionate to his sisters. He finds comfort in alcohol, and if a rigorous consumption of beer helps him black out for a spell, then so be it.
Callie (Once Upon a Time’s Jennifer Morrison, delivering an earthy and raw performance) is Harley’s neighbor, a lonely housewife in need of company. Their inevitable sexual union serves as a transitory way out for both of them, but these moments are a band-aid for festering wound that plagues Harley’s unrelentingly bleak existence.
Amber (Nicola Peltz) is 16, and though she’s supposed to serve as a role model for younger siblings Jody (Hala Finley) and Misty (Chiara Aurelia), her mind is firmly set on boys and promiscuity. With no help from Amber, continued resentment towards his mother, and a past he simply can’t erase, Harley turns to Dr. Betty Parks (June Carryl), a woman who’s trying her best to save our protagonist from the abyss.
The story starts off with a murder, as Harley is being questioned by an unshakeable lawman (Robert Patrick) who’s determined to figure out a glaring, illogical aspect of the killing. Starting off the film at the seeming end of Harley’s journey may dissuade some viewers from continuing further, but this reviewer suggests a bit of patience, as the mystery is just beginning to unfold.
What’s not a mystery is that Pettyfer, who has already proven to be a magnetic leading man (for proof, check out his work in the refreshingly enigmatic The Strange Ones, a synchronistic spiritual cousin to Back Roads), is also a first rate filmmaker. Though the story is seen through the eyes of Harley, much of the film’s success lies on the first rate work of all the actresses involved. Peltz has the difficult job of playing an emotionally complex teenager, and her confrontations (and chemistry) with Pettyfer is highly charged and, without giving too much away, ultimately resonant. Jennifer Morrison, in a role that could be seen as a femme fatale part, brings a extra level of humanity to the proceedings, and Juliette Lewis, as she always seems to do, delivers scene stealing work in one of the storyline’s most jaw dropping instances.
With his choice of actresses, a stand out screenplay (from Fatal Attraction filmmaker Adrian Lyne and Tawni O’Dell, adapting from her novel), and aided by a visually talented cinematographer (Jarin Blaschke, who shot The Witch), Pettyfer had a ton of momentum going into Back Roads, and he thankfully doesn’t drop the ball.
Certain movies, after the credits roll, may be an enjoyable but forgettable experience. There’s a ton of entertainment to be had, even if it’s fleeting. Back Roads is a gift that keeps on giving, and two weeks after viewing I simply can’t get this movie out of my head. Though it looks to have the pulpy trappings of a B-movie thriller (trust me, I love those type of films as well), Back Roads covers much more ground, and Pettyfer brings a subtle and effective touch to the story’s numerous twists and turns.
Our time on this Earth is limited, and there are too many movies to experience out there in this great big world, but thanks to an engaging and multilayered storyline, a return to Back Roads is definitely warranted, even if that path leads to darkness.
Back Roads hits theaters as well as VOD & digital on December 7.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Back Roads is one of the films covered on this month’s episode of CinemAddicts. Take a listen!