Amongst many shorts found within the indie circuit is a certain shade of genre hue enveloping their over all character. Augmenting just enough fantasy to actuality. This can not only add an extra layer of satisfaction for the audience in question, but in this case, also change what that film would have otherwise been altogether. The Highway by Susan Davis is a slow-burn pseudo thriller that shows how to properly lure an audience into the confines of expectancy, all while snickering behind their backs throughout the entire duration. With a simple story, aesthetic and moral, it also proves how easy it can be to produce a quality short without the resources of A24. Speaking of the aforementioned simple story, the plot sticks you right into the fray from the get go. Henley(Dustin Roller)must drive home via a long, monotonous trek along a rather unforgiving stretch of desolate highway. Having spoken to the love of his life prior to starting his journey, he promises to stop along the way if his energy levels begin to falter. After a short lived montage of Henley’s eyelids growing heavier, even to the point of having fallen asleep at the wheel, it’s clear the conditions of his promise have now been met. Queue the oddly convenient motel in the middle of nowhere.
It is here that the film begins to show its true colors. The tone of the film instantly changes as Henley is greeted at the doorway by what seems to be the sweetest, most well-mannered lodging manager(Windy Marshall)you can ever hope to rent a room from. Also, she’s satisfyingly creepy as all Hell. With a menacing feel given off by the dim, candle born lighting, what we have now are the small yet powerful beginnings of an eerie mind game in the form of a psychological drama. After learning of the power being out, amongst… other various set backs on Henley’s otherwise simple to-do list, the film from here on out poses the question “Why is this?” to the audience just as much as it asks, “What is this?”. Thus leads to a second half that I myself can attest(having told the film’s director personally after my initial viewing)to being well executed enough to trick even the most well-rounded of horror fans into, not seeing it coming. In this day and age, considering how many celluloid miles we’ve travelled as a society driven by a healthy cinematic diet, to make a closing act that can still surprise one another – if even just by a minuscule amount – is to have truly made a memorable piece of contemporary art.
However, a film’s effective plot devices are only as successful as those who’s job it is to keep us eager to see them unfold. That’s where The Highway’s two fantastic lead performances come into play. Driving(pun completely intended)the story forward is Roller’s Henley. A stressed out, yet well to do businessman who seems to exist through somewhat of a set schedule. Out of the ordinary happenings are comprehended as obscene, simply because they were not planned, let alone them being poor experiences in general. I know many people just like this in my own life. Hell, I’m one of them. So yes, I was very much able to relate to our protagonist quite easily. I found his portrayal in this scenario to be believable, which is extremely important for a film on this side of the genre spectrum. A man who represents the everyman, whilst falling into a frightening situation that effects only one in one million of them. I believe it was his character’s good nature that enhanced that of the film’s(possible)antagonist found in Windy Marshall’s Tiffany. With a masterful execution of a chilling southern accent and disposition too wonderfully difficult for the audience to decipher, what she provides in her role is nothing short of infinite possibility for where the story’s potentially headed. Surround these two with some stand out supporting cast members who up the bar on how concerned one should be for Henley’s current predicament and we’re left with some great on screen chemistry and a whole lot of fun to be had.
Designed and shot with tremendous effort, the film simply looks great. Some exteriors are shot with a sense of symmetry which my friend Jason and I both found to evoke that of a Kubrickian influence. Something which one can never go wrong with. Meanwhile, we have an interior mood set in stone by the seldom natural light sources given via candlelight. They extrude an unmistakable emotional center that matches that of the motel’s unsettling decor. Something I felt was very much fit for the big screen viewing I attended. But this film was not just shown on the big screen, but was given it’s own well produced red carpet event for the occasion. Proving once again that the all-out short film premiere should always be a revisited notion. Grand events for feature lengths may be a norm in our culture, but there’s never been a rule that it must be a feature. I personally love seeing short films get the same love that a 90-180 minute epic otherwise would. It’s an act that promotes just how important any one piece of art truly is and rightfully should be. Granted, being in the film fest game so long, that may just be my bleeding heart talking. But hey, the heart knows what it likes, does it not?
A short q & a session followed afterword, in which not only the primary cast and crew spoke, but a sincere thanks was given by Davis to the members of production who normally wouldn’t get as much recognition as well. I was absolutely thrilled to hear this. It spotlights a filmmaker who clearly sees how important every individual member of said crew is on set, regardless of which side of the line they happen to be. The world knows we need more creative helms like this in the industry today. Moreover, one nice red carpet photo and an AWESOME attendee keep sake(in the form of a creepy motel room key)later, we have yet another short film that has began blazing a trail across the independent film festival landscape. Here’s to personally wishing it much love out on the road, as something tells me it’ll be enlightening many aspiring filmmakers as to just how powerful a well positioned twist can still be in this day and age.
– The Spork Guy