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‘Desert Road’ review: A time-travel thriller unlike any you’ve seen before


Do you ever feel hopelessly stuck? Like no matter what you do, you keep ending up in the same shitty place? That’s the conundrum facing the heroine of Desert Road. After crashing her car in a remote desert, no matter what Clare Devoir (Kristine Froseth) does, she ends up back where she started. The pieces don’t fit together. Time is wimey. Sometimes the few folks she comes across seem to know her, even fear her.

A unique thriller that plays with time outside of a typical Groundhog’s Day looping structure, Desert Road is an indie gem that you absolutely must seek out.  

Desert Road offers an uncommon horror movie heroine.

Forget the sheepish babysitters or the brazen hussies of slasher films. Forget the meta-heroines, so familiar with genre movies that they can practically predict what should happen next, be it zombies, vampires, or Back to the Future-esque antics. What makes Desert Road‘s heroine remarkable is all the ways she isn’t playing into the tired stereotypes; she’s neither a clueless victim nor a terrorized damsel. 

Clare doesn’t have some cryptic backstory that will play into the plot. She’s not especially skilled at anything in particular — at least not if you ask her. She dreams of being a photographer, but when anyone calls her that she blushes. Photographers get paid for their work, but she takes pictures she won’t let anyone see. 

Perhaps she is her own worst critic, her own worst enemy, a self-saboteur. But when it comes to being in a pinch, she’s self-reliant. When her tire is destroyed, she capably changes it. At a nearby gas station, she’s quick to suss out a scam from its sketchy clerk (Max Mattern). But even being clever and capable, she doesn’t know what to do when she can’t escape this eponymous desert road. Over and over again, she walks from point A to point B to point C and winds up at A again. How is it possible? What does it mean? Is she dead? Is she doomed? Is there any way out?

Desert Road is a lean, mind-bending thriller.

There is a sophisticated slipperiness to the storytelling here. Writer/director Shannon Triplett rejects the rules and the clichés of so many sci-fi tales that have come before. By the time the pieces start to add up, It’s hard to do anything but marvel with a dropped jaw.

Part of the horror here is that the scenario begins in such a mundane way. It’s easy to imagine yourself in a similar position, but the solutions are much harder to imagine. Thankfully, Clare is our grit-toothed guide, spitting out enough frustrated monologues to herself and pointed dialogues at others that we are able to follow with her as she maps out this tricky terrain. Froseth shoulders this journey with gumption and a captivating charisma that is edged with righteous fury. She’s afire, and it’s a thrill to watch her burn — or scorch others. 

Desert Road is spiked with terrific supporting players.

With a cast studded by some familiar faces but few big stars, there’s an enthralling authenticity to the story, even in its inexplicable plot twists. Mattern, who plays the aforementioned convenience store clerk, exudes a fidgety energy that is both familiar and suspicious. It could be that he can’t be trusted. It could be that he’s socially awkward. And within that ambiguity, it becomes hard to decide if Clare is paranoid or onto something as she badgers him. 

Elsewhere, a security guard here (D.B. Woodside in a steely mode) and a cryptic nomad there (Frances Fisher, giving crone mystique) makes the desert around her come alive in unexpected ways. But the most moving moment happens when she comes across an old man driving alone at night, played by Beau Bridges. His name is teased in the credits, but I’d been too entranced by the movie unfolding before me to note it — until I heard the familiar, soft drawl offering our heroine (and us) some roadside wisdom. The nature of this character is a spoiler, so instead of giving it away, I’ll just say that Bridges becomes a calming voice at the eye of storm. After building tension with this fantastic story, Bridges is an oasis in Desert Road.

Movies like this are why we go to film festivals. Sure, there are flashier headliners playing at SXSW 2024. But there’s a distinctive pleasure in the feeling of discovery when watching a movie as imaginative, original, and ruthlessly riveting as Desert Road. It is a film resolute in its storytelling; it’s evocative rather than explanatory. Its savvy casting and rejection of time-travel tropes makes for a movie with a dizzy spontaneity, so it’s impossible to predict what’ll come next. That’s a rare enough treasure in movies nowadays, but even moreso in a time-travel tale post Groundhog’s Day, to which all others are inevitably compared. 

Simply put, Desert Road follows a path all its own, driving audiences along a journey that is twisted, tense, and supremely exciting. 

Desert Road was reviewed out of the film’s world premiere at SXSW 2024. 





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