Wednesday, July 27, 2016

In short: Octane (2003)

Senga Wilson (Madeleine Stowe) is driving her daughter Nat (Mischa Barton) home from a stint with Nat’s father/Senga’s ex-husband. The two have quite the night drive in front of them, a situation that isn’t made any more pleasant by the fact that Nat and Senga are in perpetual battle - this evening’s casus belli being Senga forbidding Nat going to some sort of music festival with her friends - nor by Senga running on no sleep and a lot of psychopharmacology.

After a heavy row, Nat steals away with a teenage hitchhiker she just met an hour or so ago and her said hitchhiker’s freakish friends . Unfortunately, these guys belong to some sort of highway cult led by a man calling himself The Father (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, rather unfatherly). They’re into brainwashing, dressing up as cops, ambulance drivers or truckers, causing car accidents as well as staging fake accidents. In a thematic curve ball, they are also heavily involved in bloodletting but cults all too often ignore the aesthetic pleasures of a coherent field of symbols.

After first being tricked by a fake cop who is part of the cult – not that the actual cops will turn out to be any help - Senga takes up the pursuit of the cult herself, a project that is made somewhat more difficult by her tendency to hallucinate a peculiar motivational speaker (Martin McDougall).

All the while, a man in a recovery van (Norman Reedus) is watching everyone involved, loitering sinisterly.

Marcus Adams’s Octane (working from a script by the great Stephen Volk) is a somewhat peculiar film that attempts to enrich a basic thriller plot with plenty of weirdness as well as a thematic emphasis on the strangeness that seems to be common when driving through the US by night. At least if you follow this British movie shot in Luxembourg.

Often, the film’s basic strangeness and willingness to aim for the dream-like instead of the gritty is quite a strength, providing it with a mood very much its own, and perhaps even a degree of actual thoughts underpinning it. From time to time, though, Octane drifts off into what feels like needless obscurity; at a few other times (particularly when it comes to Nat’s silly adventures in the cult’s brainwashing truck) its surrealism is rather on the silly side, with an adorably conservative idea of sex and drugs.

This is certainly no film if you want a straightforward thriller with a logical plot. When it works, it’s all strange ideas and waking dream-like direction and stuff that somewhat makes sense on a metaphorical or thematic level, and not so much on the field of narrative logic. Which is often the kind of thriller I prefer, so I found myself rather taken with Octane, not despite but because its plot logic breaks down repeatedly, if it ever existed at all.

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