The dusty back roads of the American Southwest have played host to a multitude of cinematic stories over the years. From Thelma and Louise to The Hills have Eyes, the harsh characterizations and cruel plotlines mirror the arid bleakness of the parched desert landscape. This setting is once again mined for its visual austerity in the debut film from former visual effects pro J.M. Logan.
Renee Humphrey is Jean, a petty thief who after eluding capture hitches a ride with Eldon (Boyd Kestner), a New Orleans cop who is taking his son Cole (Tanner Richie) on a backwoods journey across the country. Pretty soon, Jean will discover that this happy road trip is mired in an ever-increasing web of deception as Eldon and Cole both guard a potentially deadly secret.
Psychological thrillers are a dangerous medium, as they nearly always require some level of emotional investment on the part of the viewer. To that end, it is quite often, although not entirely necessary, that the audience identifies or empathizes with one or more of the principal figures of the storyline. This bond generally comes about from an immediate recognition of the situation and an emotional congregation with the characters. In Family, Logan begins the film by providing the audience with a sober look at Jean’s checkered life. Additionally, at the outset, Eldon is seen as the Good Samaritan, there to assist Jean, and perhaps act as a target for her reckless ways. The inevitable plot twist, which forces the role reversal of protagonist verses antagonist works only in its absolute tenability, solely due to the masterful performances of Humphrey and Kestner.
Humphrey’s juicy role requires her to not only be recognizable as a cold and calculating creature accomplished in maintaining a criminal lifestyle, but arguably plausible as an individual capable of the internal struggle between right and wrong. This foundation of duality must then make Jean not only sympathetic, but also later make her recognizable as a potential savior. Overall, that tall order is handled with ease by Humphrey who in 1994 shocked audiences with her brutal portrayal of a homicidal teen in the cult film Fun, proving that the accolades attributed to that performance were as inarguable then as they are today.
Kestner has an equally difficult role as Eldon, the concerned father who is hiding a dark revelation of his own. Kestner must initially provide a positive counterbalance to Humphrey’s solemn and disenchanted Jean, only later to prove the catalyst for her ultimate transformation. He must also make do with single-handedly providing the film’s climax with a rich and nuanced performance that veers from even handed calm to outrageous intensity without slipping on the razors edge of scenery chewing madness. If nothing else could be said about Family, the film serves as a powerhouse of intense and layered performances from its cast.
In terms of filmmaking, Family excels as well in its luscious use of the Spartan desertscapes and its stark contrasting employment of shadow. That the film was shot on HDV speaks volumes about what can be realized by low budget filmmakers who have mastered their equipment. The pacing is measured and the film might have benefited from a trim or two but overall the running time serves the plot well and I found it difficult on a second viewing to specifically pinpoint any inherent weakness.
An accomplished debut feature, Family starts out with a moment of intensity and then after reverting back to a leisurely pace being a slow burn of concentrated moments of shock that ultimately serves as an unflinching look at base human nature in an atmosphere of lies.