The sun drenched days of summer turn dark and ominous for hitchhiking duo Jack and Véronique when they become inexplicably entangled with a mysterious married couple and a local road kill collector in rural France.
Everyone warns you of the perils of hitchhiking but what really dissuaded me from ever considering getting into a car with an absolute stranger were those famous words “Thanks for the ride, lady.” in a notorious section of Creepshow 2. A far cry from said anthology segment, Abner Pastoll’s second feature, Road Games, is more wrapped up in zeroing in on foreboding atmospherics and multicultural differences, implementing language barriers as a tool to heighten the sense of unease and impotence. Accordingly, the film refrains from wallowing too much in violence and carnage – bar some final reel mayhem – and works all the better for it.
The first thing to shine through is Pastoll’s discernible partiality towards French cinema as Road Games echoes concepts we’ve witnessed from the minds of the likes of Guillaume Canet or Fred Cavayé with the protagonist’s predicament also bearing certain similarities to Harrison Ford’s quandary in Polanski’s Frantic. As was the case in Frantic, Road Games pits a foreigner against all odds in a foreign land as gadabout Jack is clearly at a cultural and linguistic disadvantage, oftentimes oblivious as to just how deep he is wading. Talking of the language barriers, whilst most of the French dialogue is subtitled, if your French isn’t too rusty then the film has its pros and cons. You’ll find yourself at a vantage point in terms of seeing some of the cards before they are thrown on the table but at the same time some of the scenes where the French is translated for poor Jack can get a bit frustrating and repetitive. It’s by no means a massive drawback though and obviously makes sense to ensure everyone is on the same page.
Audiences are also in for very top drawer performances, particularly when it comes to the fine young leads, Andrew Simpson as Jack and Joséphine de La Baume as Véronique. Simpson is the perfect rolling stone, blagging his way back to England as best he can after having lost everything bar the clothes on his back whilst everyone will appreciate just why Jack falls head over heels for de La Baume’s happy-go-lucky and innocent Véronique. Lest we forget the stellar work of veteran actors Frédéric Pierrot and Barbara Crampton who both put in particularly wayward performances to keep the audiences on their toes. It’s this deception and trickery that plays the pivotal role as a steady stream of ruses is implemented throughout to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes making certain you won’t have the foggiest who to trust.
Pastoll and crew clearly had a keen eye when it came to location scouting in the quaint French town of Maidstone, Kent. Whilst absolutely true, you’ll have trouble believing that three of the four weeks used to shoot the film were spent in England as the team succeeded in creating an unerringly credible French setting. This is predominantly down to the shrewd and arresting cinematography provided by the amazing DP Eben Bolter who, surprisingly, Pastoll confesses much prefers the energy of not being prepared when it comes to lights, camera, action. Bolter’s cinematographic prowess is also perfectly complemented by Daniel Elms’ score – an eclectic blend of orchestral and retro synth soundscapes.
I have to be honest and say that I did foresee the final curveball but, thankfully, the film didn’t suffer as a result as the exchanges between the characters are a marvel to watch from start to finish. Even if Road Games has its moments of déjà-vu, if you’re looking to hitch a ride for a tense, absorbing and character-driven journey that will keep you guessing for the most part then you certainly can’t go wrong with this one.
Words: Howard Gorman (@HowardGorman)