Reviews Short Narrative

Roadkill (2020) – 2 stars

Director: Xavier Wehrli

Writer: Xavier Wehrli

Cast: Jose Gomez, Emma Ashman, Bret Wehrli

Running time: 11mins

In the 178 years since its first publishing, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has been so utterly churned up and cannibalised by the film industry that it is easy to forget at its heart, it is at times genuinely creepy. While it might also be heartily invested with seasonal cosiness, its author also went to pains to create an atmospheric, eerie and unsettling ghost-story. The interplay between these two seemingly contradictory elements is what has helped Dickens’ great morality story stand the test of time.

There are a great many lessons that modern artists can draw from this illustrious historical example; but the broadest and most important is how Dickens avoided his work becoming overly didactic by deploying compelling narrative devices from various genres. If a work of fiction seeks to supply its audience a message, it needs to supply sufficient thrills for them to not feel lectured, while also encouraging them to learn the lesson vicariously through the film’s characters.

Roadkill doesn’t strike that balance at all. Without intending to sound patronising, a first-time student director born after 2000 was never likely to nail such a film on the first try, and Xavier Wehrli will undoubtedly have learned a great deal about the creative process just from undertaking this 11-minute short. At the same time, if he is to grow as an artist, it will be important to understand what went wrong here, both technically and thematically.

As the film’s synopsis would have it, “Roadkill follows the life of a socially isolated man whose guilty conscience has manifested itself as the ghost of an adolescent girl. Obsessed with banishing the apparition, the man’s reality deteriorates into a perpetual cycle of dread.”

This is a simple yet effective basis on which to base a film, and would indeed work well as a mechanism to deliver its core message of “Don’t drink and drive.” Having picked out a tried and tested central mechanism, however, Wehrli’s film fails to deliver any of the suspense or atmosphere necessary to make it work.

If we are going to truly understand the dread of Dr Juan Lopez (Jose Gomez), we need to have the object of his fears teased into the film, existing initially in our peripheral – where our main character’s reaction to it should inform our own feelings toward it. As it is, the ghost of Lily Wilson (Emma Ashman) is unceremoniously dumped into the foreground in the film’s first 30 seconds. While her sudden appearance behind a fridge door in Juan’s bottle-strewn apartment is well executed, it is a frankly stale reveal that is done to death by student films, and the unflinching reaction of our lead actor gives us no fear factor, and subsequently nothing to empathise with.

This situation rapidly declines from here. Lily proceeds to appear in every facet of Juan’s morning routine, hovering in the background while the irritable Doctor does his best to ignore her presence. Rather than an ominous spirit, tormenting someone who wronged her, Lily subsequently comes across an unwelcome house-guest, lingering despite her hosts repeated hints that the party is over.

If anything, then, we are irritated by Lily, rather than fearful of her – and as this gives us little reason to invest in the occurrences of Roadkill, it only serves to highlight the film’s technical shortcomings. For example, the fact Ashman has so little to do, while being given so much screen-time means our eyes unavoidably zero in on the fact she is the unfortunate owner of a nervous. Later, meanwhile, our ears can’t help but focus on the tinny nature of a ‘radio’ announcement on Juan’s commute – the fact it is declaring a young woman is missing becomes secondary to the fact it is so obviously not delivered through the hefty bass-tones of a car radio.

Upon Juan’s arrival, the lack of chills is emphasised by a bizarre and drawn out sequence in a deserted, shady hospital car-park. We see our main character park, get out of his car, shut and lock the door (the sound-effects for which are gratingly out of sync), and walk out of frame. Despite the excruciating length of the shot, and it being in the most sinister-looking location in the whole film, this is unforgivably the only place where our ghost does not make an appearance!

One of the saddest things about this is that Robin Deibert-Patterson’s musical work goes to waste thanks to the lack of work in building visual atmosphere. The creeping, sinister score he has devised is so clearly meant to accompany foreboding imagery, but again, as we haven’t bought into the process, it might as well be the stock-music people narrate creepypastas to on YouTube.

The film’s climax sees Juan look to address the situation – not by confessing he has committed a hit and run, but by burying the body of the girl he has stashed in his fridge. After driving to perhaps the best lit street in Canada, and dug a hole in a conspicuously well-lit patch of ‘wilderness’, Juan returns home, thinking he must finally be free of the spirit that has tormented him.

He switches out the light – only for Lily to be standing, motionless as always, by his window. Unfortunately, she is in the all-too-familiar state we have already seen, so while this moment should represent an escalation, condemning Juan’s cowardice to take responsibility, this actually just feels like an irritating return to normality – making it difficult to draw any kind of moral conclusions. It’s an unsatisfactory end, but one consistent with a broader narrative arc that needed far more oomph to pull of its core aims convincingly.

Overall, it should be said that Roadkill is not a disasterous first attempt by Xavier Wehrli. While there are a number of misfires here, having something worth saying at the heart of your film is something neglected by a number of more polished filmmakers – and despite their technical prowess that usually makes their art utterly vacuous. In contrast, Wehrli’s film has a conscience, and if he can build on that he will soon be making more compelling films than Roadkill.

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