Jack’s (Andrew Simpson) European trip has slowed down some since hitting the French countryside as the number of passing motorists willing to give him a lift has dwindled to zero. He catches a distracting break when a car stops – not to pick him up, but to drop off Véronique (Joséphine de La Baume) after a violent argument with her boyfriend – giving him someone to talk with while awaiting the next good Samaritan. The two hit it off despite his limited French vocabulary, and he quickly learns why getting a ride has been so difficult. A serial killer has been stalking the rural roads.
At this point some of you more familiar with the slasher/killer genre might suspect this film is a remake of Richard Franklin’s identically-titled Australian chiller from 1981 starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Stacy Keach. It is not.
The pair are saved – at least temporarily – when a man named Grizard (Frédéric Pierrot) picks them up and takes them to his home with the promise of a ride to the train station later that night. He’s a bit of an odd duck, but his home is beautiful, his generosity is abundant, and his American wife, Mary (Barbara Crampton), is thrilled to have an English-speaking visitor. As the quartet settle in for dinner though it becomes quite clear that something is amiss. A serial killer is enjoying a meal at the table.
An early murder and body disposal lets us know that writer/director Abner Pastoll’s second feature has violence heading our way, but its strongest scenes and moments come with the quartet’s introductions and inter-mingling before the shit hits the fan and the bodies hit the floor. We know a killer is loose, and we suspect it’s one of these four. The addition of a fifth wheel in the form of a grizzled, gun-happy older man only complicates things further. Viewers will find their certainties and allegiances shifting like wheat in the nearby fields only to come to rest when the truth finally reveals itself.
Later twists satisfy even if they do grow a bit wobbly towards the end, but the uncertainty and smartly-crafted misdirection that make up the majority of the film owe as much to the cast as to the script. Crampton is the most familiar actor here for American audiences, and she gives a standout performance as a woman with truths locked behind her eyes, struggling to be set free. Characters move from victim to threat and back again with deadly ease, and even those who seem like obvious targets for our suspicions could just as easily earn our concern. Part of what makes the the quartet – or the two pairs – work is the bilingual nature of both relationships. It’s most evident with Jack’s predicament as conversations in French occasionally elude him to his detriment, but it’s equally visible in Mary’s longing to return home and away from this Gallic nightmare.
The title is something of a misnomer – an unnecessary one too given certain similarities to Franklin’s film – as most of it takes place away from the road. Grizad’s home is the central locale, and it’s terrifically-suited for the job as it brings a rustic nature and plenty of space to roam while also feeling remote enough to allow for the sounds of unheard screams. Director of photography Eben Bolter captures the beauty of the countryside, both in scenes of laughing and love as well as those involving implements of murder, and composer Daniel Elms adds to the atmosphere with a minimal but catchy score.
As much mystery as suspense thriller, Road Games delivers a twisty ride.
The Upside: Smartly-written whodunit for much of its run-time; cast dynamic is solid
The Downside: Third act wavers with final reveals; flat stretches between the story turns