French horror over the past decade has given fans some truly memorable (and disturbing) films. Films such as Ils, Martyrs (not so much the American remake, mind you), Inside and Haute Tension gave the genre a taste of the truly dark. Sadly, while writer/director Abner Pastoll’s thriller Road Games is set in France, the film was shot in the UK. Nevertheless, that shouldn’t stop fans from seeing this smartly-crafted thriller, especially when you have scream queen legend Barbara Crampton involved.
Jack (Andrew Simpson) is an English drifter hitchhiking across rural France. He meets fellow hitchhiker Véronique (Josephine de La Baume), and they strike up a relationship. Unfortunately for them, they can’t seem to catch a ride with any passerby, and for good reason. Seems that this stretch of road has seen a rash of murders committed by a serial killer picking up hitchhikers. That’s the last thing on the couple’s minds when a kind yet eccentric old man named Grizard (Frederic Pierrot) offers them a ride to his home for them to clean up and eat, and to meet his wife, Mary (Barbara Crampton). While Jack seems relieved to have a place to rest, Véronique is suspicious. Soon, her suspicion turns to distrust as things quickly take a turn.
I’m always a sucker for a film that utilizes an isolated area to its potential, and Road Games handedly accomplishes this. Part of it is the look, which thanks to Road Games‘ director of photography Eben Bolter and colourist Lee Clappison, is nothing short of gorgeous. I’m sure that the countryside in the UK doesn’t quite look as warm and verdant as it does here. The camera glides over the film’s landscape, allowing for some truly beautiful shots of the idyllic countryside. The scenes as the start of the film when Véronique and Jack begin to develop their relationship are downright picturesque. It’s almost like another part of the world other than the UK in its colour. As with many landscapes, the beauty can and does give way to something sinister, which again Bolter’s camera accomplishes such as during the dinner scenes. The camera moves slowly and purposefully as the actors do their job of upping the tension.
This of course is the other ingredient that makes Road Games so good. The cast are superb in their roles and in their acting. Obviously, Simpson and Crampton aren’t natively French speakers, but they easily pull off the proper pronunciation and accents, which I thought helped to bring believability to their roles. Often, Jack’s inability to fully understand French has him missing out on crucial information that could help ease his problems in the film. It’s a great idea, and puts Jack in a sort of isolated position that is unique to the character that easily resonates for the non-French speakers. As well, Simpson and de La Baume have excellent chemistry together onscreen, and make for great protagonists. Josephine is great as the innocent and carefree Véronique. Her willingness to bare all to someone like Jack (who she’s known for all of a couple of hours) underscores this. And then there’s the work by vets Pierrot and Crampton. Crampton in particular gets across the oddity of her character with her interactions with Jack. Her lines and their delivery hint at the peculiarities of her character, not to mention her body language and her physical interactions with Jack. It really gets across those uncomfortable feelings that feed into tension. Likewise, Pierrot’s strangeness in his character also gets that tension going.
The film falters a bit during its third act, which has things unraveling to an expected conclusion, even if the ending is meant to throw the audience off with its “out of nowhere” swerve. Also, the film does recycle the clichés that we’ve seen before in other films, as well as being guilty of pacing that can border on being listless. But with the performances, it’s definitely easier to let those slide in favour of enjoying the work on screen.
With some great performances and masterful camerawork, Pastoll’s Road Games is a wonderful thriller. The way Pastoll has layered the character-driven narrative with great writing and equally-great tension is a very pleasant surprise. Admittedly, there’s an aire of “been there, done that” going on with the film, but it still manages to draw you in with its performances. Definitely check it out if you’re in the mood for this type of thriller.