The unbound wanderer is a romanticized figure symbolizing freedom from the shackles of social norms and suffocating relationships, guided only by pride. Usually male, he’s a timeless archetype in American culture, but the best way to understand his journey for purpose is through film. Westerns (John Wayne’s “Rooster Cogburn”), wilderness epics (Robert Redford’s “Jeremiah Johnson”), and psychodramas (Edward Norton’s narrator in Fight Club) elevate this figure to mythic proportions. But Drifter, directed by Chris von Hoffmann, avoids falling cliche and gives audiences a fresh perspective on a classic narrative.
We first meet two roving brothers — the mentally challenged Miles, played by Aria Emory, and the alpha male Dominic, played by Drew Harwood — as they speed across a post-apocalyptic Southwestern United States wasteland. Their only access to freedom is a double-edged albatross. Their old beat up car is necessary for escape, but it also makes them a target in a world where possessions and mobility equal power. We quickly learn that Dominic’s rock-hard veneer is a necessary consequence to ensure Miles’ survival. The latter’s instability exaggerates the already awesome task of staying alive under constant threat.
The film communicates the hazard of each breath through aural soundscapes and visual landscapes that are as revolting as they are captivating. A droning score reminiscent of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) melts time into anxious puddles. Like that film, Drifter shares a surrealist quality produced by disaffected characters and long, slow tracking shots to build tension. The major difference is in how von Hoffmann makes us surrender to the likeability of these disturbed characters, rather than the Lynchian model of investing in Henry Spencer by making sure he’s kept at a safe distance.
Drifter breaks the tension with bizarrely comic characters that Miles and Dominic meet in a shantytown called Demyl. Sasha, a manic centerfold played by Rebecca Fraiser, seduces Dominic with a mesmerizing combination of sensuality and hysteria. Dominic’s distraction leaves him vulnerable so Latos, played by Anthony Ficco, can kick his ass and deliver him to Doyle, Demyl’s mayor. Doyle is the psychological linchpin of the film. His flaming hair, nerd casual style, and ghoulish undertones evoke early 1980s Danny Elfman. But Doyle is more sinister than the Oingo Boingo frontman-turned-movie score composer. As much as you want to fear Doyle and be repulsed by him, the character’s vulnerability due to a disturbing past humanizes him. Beyond being another villain with parental issues, Doyle is a patriarch looking for a family. He’s the last vestige of hope the misfits in Demyl have to reclaim any sense of normalcy. He’s given them a home and community after the world as they know it came to an end. It just so happens that he also manipulates them and feeds them human flesh. But no one’s perfect, right?
This complicated position between life and death is what makes Vijah such a complex character. Played brilliantly by Monique Rosario, Vijah joined Doyle’s gang out of loneliness. It was either rely on them to live or die alone. That choice ultimately led her to supporting Doyle’s rise to Demyl’s dictator. When Miles and Dominic roll into town, Vijah genuinely wants to help them. She cleans the wound in Miles’ hand and warns Dominic to hide. But she’s ultimately stuck between her morals and loyalties to Doyle. She is lost just like the rest of these poor creatures. In fact, her identifiable struggle is that of all human beings. By the end of the film, we are all left to consider the ways we drift through life looking for meaning every day.
I give Drifter 4.5 out of 5 hairpieces. Horror fans will relate to the story without finding it trite. And viewers not particularly taken with that genre will find the movie’s mysterious qualities compelling. Check it out when it hits theaters on February 24th. It is produced by XLrator Media. It was written by Chris von Hoffmann and Aria Emory with a story by von Hoffmann. Here is a link to the trailer: