Reviews Short Narrative

Sunset Drive (2023) – 1 star

Director: Michael Thomas DeLano

Writer: Michael Thomas DeLano

Cast: Joseph Lopez, Kristin Samuelson, Harry Goodwins, Brittany Mariscek, Danielle von Visger, Justin Snowball

Running time: 19mins

Some films are difficult to write about constructively. To do that, you need to understand their aims, and with a film like Sunset Drive, it is just impossible to say what that aim was. I can take some educated guesses at what went on in production, or what the final product is supposed to be telling me. But in the end, who this story was for, or what writer-director Michael Thomas DeLano hoped to achieve by telling it, will remain a mystery.

The start is explosive, if incoherent. Playing over the opening credits is a frenetic montage of what you might assume are highlights, plucked from wider contextual sequences – used to construct a trailer within the film itself. Honestly, I’m not sure if there is a reason any filmmaker would ever deploy this tactic as anything more than obvious padding, for a run-time that fell a little short. But if that is the case, it invariably works better if its contents are taken from longer scenes – and not just lifted shot-for-shot from another montage that occurs in the mid-point of the movie.

This seems to be a running theme for DeLano’s production, which is just a series of vaguely related vignettes, with no connective tissue. The story, such as it is, centres on Thomas and Frankie – an aged couple living alone somewhere in California. After the opening credits roll, things pleasingly calm down for a second, with the pair eating dinner, and threatening to break into meaningful dialogue.

DeLano seems to have taken such umbrage at the idea his characters would talk to each other, that he momentarily suspends the laws of physics to prevent it. After the pair banter, Frankie (Kristin Samuelson) approaches Thomas (Joseph Lopez) with a glint in her eye, and a glass jug of water in her hand – and Thomas begs her not to do anything silly with it. Before she can tip it on his head, however, it spontaneously explodes, spilling water everywhere.

With the two actors (who both seem more than capable of delivering believable and earnest dialogue) safely prevented from fleshing out the film’s core relationship in a way we actually care about, the plot steams ahead. A trio of young people screech to a halt outside their house in a Honda pickup truck. It is very important that it is a Honda for some reason, and we get numerous shots of its front grill to remind us. The H gets more screen-time than one of the bandits, as it transpires – he is immediately gunned down by Frankie when he attempts to break into the house.

The other two, bellowing the whole time, decide to make good their escape. Apparently, they have what they need anyway – having snatched it from the adjoining garage. So, were it not so important to foreground that big H on their gas-guzzler, they could just have snuck in and out of the garage on foot, taking the ‘technology’ they planned to pilfer without event.

The object itself appears to be some kind of camping lantern, so it is not exactly evident why it was a risk worth one of their deaths – however poorly it was guarded. But Thomas’ urgent pursuit in a Ford Mustang (its iconic horse fetishised by DeLano’s lens at every opportunity, over the roar of its engine) gives us a clue that the item is much more important than it appears.

Possibly the film’s only decent joke follows – with Thomas hastily imploring Frankie not to kill anyone else while he is gone. And then, the hunt is on. Or, more honestly, the cautious Sunday drive is on.

While the finer details are still obscured, we are aware now that the stakes are supposedly life-and-death. So, the following scene in which Thomas’ Mustang occasionally pulls alongside the Honda, but stops at a safe distance before respectfully dropping back into single-file, is hardly the high-octane event we would have expected. Presumably, whichever dealership loaned the production those expensive cars wanted all the exposure of a James Bond sponsorship, but without the risk of one or more of its motors being totalled in the ensuing ‘madness’.

It doesn’t help that the driving goes on for so long, to the extent it seems to be the actual focus of the film. During the intervening sequences, where bandits Danielle Von Visger and Justin Snowball each put in atrocious performances (particularly the bellowing Snowball, who I assume was sober behind the wheel, but whose energy as he furiously stumbles through every line, was a coke-addled Neanderthal learning to read during a car chase), some people might feel that helps explain the choice to focus more on the cars. But for all the strange choices they made, DeLano either agreed with them, or didn’t care how they came across.

His background with production company Cotu Media might offer up more of an insight into how we got here. The company has done adverts for a number of automotive brands, including Honda. Suddenly all the nice shots of cars driving fast – but not too fast – down winding desert roads, and the propensity for abstract and bizarre montages makes a lot more sense. If they weren’t just the result of running out of money and having to make the most of what was already shot, they might have just been muscle memory. And while it seems very unlikely either car featured in this film was a paid sponsorship, DeLano might have been able to call in a few favours that allowed him to use them – albeit timidly.

But if the aim of this film wasn’t actually to exhibit the cars for sale, and it clearly wasn’t to highlight the talents of the cast, what was the point? After Thomas prevails in the car chase, we finally get a little more insight into the stakes of the plot. Without the lantern, he and Frankie would have been sitting ducks for a race of monsters that are just a thing – leaving the last surviving bandit to be devoured by one off-screen.

So, this is a sci-fi horror, aiming to thrill us and show off some neat practical effects, surely? Well, no. As soon as we learn a blood-thirsty breed of extraterrestrials have been dining out on humanity for something like three decades, we cut to a series of tame vignettes where a younger Thomas and Frankie are bantering with each other. None of these really amount to telling us anything about them, or how they survived to old age against the odds. Instead, they waste time on facile dialogue, ranging from wondering what death is like, to the insufferable anti-feminist trope where a tough female character insists a man should slap her for ‘equality’. And then there is the same montage we saw at the start of the two of them running from an unseen force – and getting covered in blood as their friends are eviscerated off-screen.

In between we keep harking back to Thomas in the modern day, driving to save Frankie as night draws in, and the monsters ‘emerge’. But beyond glimpsing their glowing red eyes (which may well be the rear lights from a bicycle) and black tendrils (which may be sticks with black wool wrapped around them), we don’t get much of a look at what they are, or how they operate – never mind a sequence in which either protagonist actually has to face one down, suggesting the point of this production can’t have been to appeal to sci-fi or horror fans either.

At no point do we get so much as a whisper of exposition for the existence of these monsters. I suppose because there would have been less time for drone footage of a car driving through California’s hills then. But it would be strange for a galactic invasion of blood-thirsty extra-terrestrials to be a side-thought in any film – let alone one where there is so little else going on.

Joseph Lopez and Kristin Samuelson do what they can with a baffling script, and manage to conjure up a chemistry that deserved exploring further. Some of the film’s lighting is nice after the sun goes down – but too much of the film takes place in the golden hour (because cars look nicer then) to make the most of that either. Everything else is a colossal failure, as far as I can tell anyway. None of the motives for making this film seem like they are satisfied – and the writer’s regular flirtations with utterly charmless banter about women will erode what little good will the audience had for his production.

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