Author Michael Farris Smith has penned a nice handful of best-selling books, from The Hand of Strangers and The Fighter to Desperation Road. The latter, an emotionally rich action thriller, arrives in theaters and on demand this month with Smith as screenwriter. The film version is, overall, an effective southern noir thriller with a plot featuring a compelling thematic triangle: revenge, redemption, and justice.
Desperation Road stars Garrett Hedlund (TRON: Legacy), Willa Fitzgerald (Scream: The TV Series), and Oscar winner Mel Gibson (Braveheart). It takes place in a small Mississippi town where the locals know one another and protecting family is key, no matter how far you go to keep your loved ones safe. Or bring justice to them. Ultimately, this movie is about two lost souls — Fitzgerald plays distraught Maben, a single mother running for her life; and Hedlund is Russell, a man who just got out of jail and must start over. Maben and Russell’s lives collide in the sort of way only fate allows, and the story manages to rise beyond the film’s bloated run time — things could have been shaved off 15 minutes here — delivering a surprisingly deep look at despair and redemption.
Crafting a Compelling Story
Directed by Nadine Crocker, Desperation Road is a curious ride, at times feeling as if it’s spinning along without somewhere to go. Be patient. Everything shifts, and we understand the film is about two different lost souls. The first story tracks Maben, a single mother desperately trying to rebuild her life. We’re not fully privy to what truly happened to Maben before we meet her and her young daughter, Annalee (Pyper Braun). All we know is that Maben is cruising truck stops and picking up some cash.
On the way back to the motel where she and her daughter are staying, a pervy cop shoves her in the back of the police car, whisking her off to a low-lit underpass. He says he’ll let Maben go if he can just get a “favor.” Reluctantly, she agrees. Afterward, she’s desperate to get back to her daughter, but the cop wants to bring some of his buddies in on the fun. Maben has already humiliated herself. She cannot bear anymore. Before the new fellas arrive, Maben defends herself, and as the blood spills from the cop’s body, she’s running off with the gun she used to shoot him.
Meanwhile, Russell may be stoked to be getting out of prison, but his relief is quickly dashed when two burly guys beat him up, believing justice hasn’t been fully served. There’s an interesting backstory there, and it’s compelling to see how this film addresses it. In this case, you can tell the author and the screenwriter are the same person, because Michael Farris Smith walks a fine balance here to keep the audience interested. Russell heads to his father’s house; that’s Mitchell (Mel Gibson). He’s happy to see his son, but his sudden appearance will clearly stir things up with the new life he’s creating with Consuela (Paulina Gálvez). Because the two thugs — Ryan Hurst nails his performance — who messed up Russell clearly aren’t done with him.
A Dangerous Road Ahead
From here, the film becomes about two people desperately trying to keep their freedom. The cops are looking for the person who killed the police officer and took his gun. Maben must find a way out of town. Russell can’t shake his past or the two fellas who want revenge. Eventually Maben and Russell meet and through some twists and turns, and a period of establishing trust, Maben believes she can trust Russell.
The idea to have Maben hide out on Russell’s property seems good enough at first. Father Mitchell wonders what his son has gotten himself into, but at least Maben is safe — for now. It should be said that for a film starring Mel Gibson, the actor doesn’t appear on-screen much. Surely Gibson’s name is a draw and when we do see him, he brings a sense of grounded wisdom to the role he’s been given to play.
Challenges mount. Russell’s old pal (Woody McClain) is now a cop. He suspects something is up, but Russell can keep him at bay. Not for long, however. As the film drifts into its final act, you may be surprised by how invested you’ve become in these characters. At first glance, this may seem like another cookie cutter action thriller, but it’s so much more.
Willa Fitzgerald delivers a powerful, emotionally stirring performance as Maben. Garrett Hedlund is believable in a role that requires him to come to terms with the past and do what’s right. Director Nadine Crocker proves herself to be a viable filmmaker, somebody who understands story and how to evoke a sense of emotion from the audience. Despite its runtime (112 minutes), Desperation Road stays on course just long enough for you to enjoy the ride.
From Lionsgate, Desperation Road is in theaters and on demand.