Friday, December 04, 2020

Wander: Consider it Conspiracy-Town

It turns out Roswell isn't the craziest town in New Mexico. In this film, the fictional dirt village of Wander is way more sinister. Nobody would want to go there, but apparently those there have a hard time leaving. Arthur Bretnik, a barely licensed PI and trafficker of conspiracy theories will go there hoping to find answers in April Mullen’s Wander, which releases today on VOD.

Bretnik was once a cop, but he lost his job and his family when he wouldn’t back off investigating an
irregular murder, even after the body mysteriously disappeared. Obviously, Bretnik still suffers from emotional and neurological damage caused by the convenient accident that finally sidelined him, but he fared better than his late wife and their now brain-damaged daughter. These days, Bretnik co-hosts an Art Bell-ish podcast with his conspiracy theory-mongering crony, Jimmy Cleats and mostly chases down low-rent insurance cheats for money.

Cleats brings him a client who might be a little too perfect. Her daughter died at Wander’s city-limits, under suspicious circumstances she would like Bretnik to investigate. She can also pay pretty good money for his services, even though she is in the country illegally. Of course, Bretnik is totally hooked when he discovers the body had a mysterious non-bullet hole, much like his victim back in the day. He is the last to believe it was a coincidence his client came to him, but he also believes he finally has a chance to uncover the “truth.”

It is hard to figure who this film was really intended for. The shadowy extra-governmental conspiracy Bretnik chases is the sort of yarn that could appeal to the wacky QAnon crowd (seriously, does anyone think Trump could keep his mouth shut about it if he were really fighting some global child abusing cabal?), but the victims are largely illegals, whom the film bends over backward to express sympathy for.

Okay, so whatever. The surprising part is
Wander functions pretty well as a thriller (notwithstanding the terrible title). In many ways, it is like a redo of Richard Donner’s Conspiracy Theory, with Aaron Eckhart taking on the Mel Gibson role and Heather Graham serving as the Julia Roberts analog (in this case, Graham represents an upgrade).

Eckhart walks the line between justifiably paranoid and flat-out nuts quite adroitly, which adds a great deal of uncertainty and suspense to the viewing experience. Frankly, he takes a lot of chances in this film and most of them pay-off (his iffy limp being the worst exception). Graham is realistically grounded and skeptical as Shelley Luscomb, Bretnik’s lawyer and self-appointed social worker. Katheryn Winnick is impressively hardcore as “Elsa,” the leader of the “Men in Black.” However, Tommy Lee Jones goes a little too over-the-top as Cleats, the flaky blowhard.

Of course, the narrative never really adds up, because it’s a conspiracy thriller. The ending is bound to disappoint, by its very nature. Yet, Mullen wrings the material for all the suspense its worth, while crafting some tense (and sometime visually striking) scenes along the way. (It represents a major step up from
88 for Mullen, but she has had a few films and a lot of episodic TV work in between.) Recommended for fans of the-truth-is-out-there movies, Wander releases today (12/4) on VOD.