Based on a true story and on the novel "Ward Allen: Savannah River Market Hunter" by John Eugene Cay Jr., Savannah centers around the lives of two men, Ward Allen (Jim Caviezel) and Christmas Moultrie (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in Savannah, Georgia in 1918. Ward comes from a wealthy family, but chooses to give up his inheritence to lead a life of hunting. While hunting, he befriends Christmas, an escaped slave, who becomes his hunting partner. Meanwhile, Ward gets into trouble for illegal hunting and defends himself in front of a very lenient judge, Judge Harden (Hal Holbrook). He marries Lucy Stubbs (Jamie Alexander) despite that her father (Sam Shepard) disapproves of him.
First and foremost, Savannah offers convincingly moving performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jim Caviezel each of whom adds warmth, charisma and poignancy to their roles. Casting directors Deborah Aquila and Parvaneh Mireille deserve kudos for selecting such a well-chosen cast of talented actors who enliven the film. Unfortunately, the screenplay by writer/director Annette Haywood-Carter underwhelms and feels rather pedestrian and inert---much like the last year's overlong, disappointing Lincoln. At least Savannah is only 1 hour and 50 minutes long; if it were over 2 hours, boredom would start to kick in full throttle. It's worth noting that there are a few moments of levity during the courtroom interactions between Ward and the judge, surprisingly. The meat of the story, though, friendship between Ward and Christmas, isn't explored deeply enough, so it never feels palpable. Haywood-Carter includes scenes from 1958 when Christmas, no 95 years old, recalls his experiences with Ward to his good friend, Jack Cay (Bradley Whitford), but those scenes come across as awkward juxtaposed with the flashbacks from 1918.
Can strong performances and exquisite, breathtaking cinematography compensate for a weak screenplay? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. In the case of Savannah, the answer is yes, albeit just barely, because the film becomes slightly more emotionally absorbing, sweeping and entertaining thanks to those strengths which, in turn, allow you to forgive the screenplay's shortcomings, for the most part.
Mitchell (Josh Duhamel) and Carter (Dan Fogler), friends since childhood, embark on a road trip through the desert of Death Valley in hopes of rekindling their waning friendship. After Carter plays a prank on Mitchell to make him think that their pickup truck has broken down, Mitchell freaks out and Carter admits to prank. They become stranded for good when Mitchell tries to start the car, but fails to do so even when Carter reconnects the wire that he had unplugged. That's when Scenic Route kicks into full thriller and even horror gear as Mitchell and Carter desperately seek help in the middle of nowhere. The stakes escalate when a lot of friction transpires between them, and they find themselves unable to control their anger and frustration. They must not only struggle to survive the elements, but also each other.
What makes Scenic Route more than your average modern day thriller is that it doesn't doesn't become tedious, shallow, contrived or asinine. In no way does the film feel like Gus Van Sant's painfully tedious and pretentious Gerry which also had its characters stranded in the desert. The screenplay by Kyle Killen remains character-driven throughout, avoids the trappings of boring exposition, and leaves a little room for interpretation, especially in the third act. It's quite compelling to observe how the friendship or lack thereof between Mitchell and Carter evolves so organically. As you the two of them wander through the desert, you gradually learn more about their lives and what makes them so different from each other; neither of them is merely a cardboard cut-out, so you're at least somewhat emotionally invested in their lives.
Co-directors Kevin and Michael Goetz make the most out of the desert scenery to highlight Mitchell and Carter's isolation sans the use of special effects. Fortunately, they avoid using cheap camera tricks like shaky cam (Neill Blomkamp should learn from them!) as a means to generate tension; the tension comes from the plot and characters themselves. To top it all off, there's also the solid acting skills of Josh Duhamel and Dan Fogler who give the best performance of their career by far---that just shows you that all they needed to display their talents were complex characters and a well-written screenplay both of which are hard to find in Hollywood these days. In a summer inundated with bloated, shallow blockbusters which are nothing more than long, loud video games, the refreshingly intelligent and palpably suspenseful Scenic Route comes along. It deserves to be in wide release rather than limited.
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