Back Roads

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Having played the junior James Bond figure Alex Rider in Stormrider, and then a few teenage heartthrobs before bulking up to become a kind of Channing Tatum in waiting, Alex Pettyfer takes control of his own destiny by starring in his own film. It’s his directorial debut and a pretty good one, a knotty piece of American trash gothic about a family in trouble.

As we open, Pettyfer’s blood-stained Harley is being grilled by cop Robert Patrick. Why did you kill her, the cop wants to know. But the question this film actually asks is not why but who?

We know it’s a woman who’s dead, but which woman exactly? Harley’s life is full of women. There’s his mother, currently in prison for killing her husband, the three younger sisters Harley is now bringing up single handed, the therapist he’s seeing for reasons which become clearer as the film becomes darker, and the mother of one of Harley’s sister’s friends.

The film then unfolds in flashback and is as much a story about guilt and innocence as a murder thriller. More than that, it’s also the story of a family who are all dealing in different ways with the fallout from abuse – Harley is given to wild mood swings and is touchingly (wilfully?) naive. His almost invariably scantily clad sister Amber (Nicola Peltz) deals with the abuse by having sex with anyone, anyhow. For his other sister Misty (Chiara Aurelia) it’s an unhealthy interest in firearms. Only youngest sister Jody (Hala Finley) seems unscathed, though it’s all relative.

Harley in his work clothes
Harley drudges to keep the family together

How the kids got into this state is revealed as the film progresses, in a plotline neatly interwoven with the original one about who wound up dead.

The link between the two is Callie Mercer (Jennifer Morrison), the local MILF with the hots for Harley and with no idea what she’s getting into.

Adrian Lyne is one of the writers and was originally meant to direct. The legacy of that is evident in the sex scenes between Harley and Callie, sweaty with Fatal Attraction/9½Weeks steam.

Otherwise, it’s an elegantly directed film, cool and assured – perhaps too cool at times considering what we’re watching – and like a lot of actors who turn to directing, Pettyfer gives the cast its head. He’s rewarded with great performances all round – Morrison and Peltz are the standouts as women ambivalent about their sexual commodification. Hotness is power, after all.

Increasingly reminiscent psychologically of Gary Oldman’s directorial debut, Nil By Mouth, another dark tale of a family in extremis, Back Roads shares its conclusions about the effects of prolonged abuse – it bends things out of shape, and in ways that are not easily plotted on a graph.

Without revealing the denouement, I’m trying to say that things get very dark, histrionic even, as this film slowly transforms from being about the identity of the victim to the identity of the perpetrator, or perpetrators.

A word about Robert Patrick and Juliette Lewis. They’re often brought in to a terrible film to deliver a bit of cult cultural baggage, if nothing else. Patrick has no room to flex here – he’s a cop asking questions and gets about five minutes screen time. So does Lewis, but in her five minutes, even though she’s playing a woman in prison, she delivers one of those performances you don’t want to take your eyes off.

But this isn’t a terrible film. In fact it’s a pretty good one, especially if you like dark dramas about the devastating effects of sex when it’s let out of its box.

Back Roads – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

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