It almost feels appropriate that Abner Pastoll’s Road Games isn’t at all a remake of Richard Franklin’s similarly titled 1981 film. Whether it’s a clever nod or just another example of shameless title exploitation (titleploitation?) is up for debate, but it does provide a clue about the film’s somewhat playful approach to familiar material. As it was with Franklin’s film, the title here is a double entendre, referring to both the cat-and-mouse games unfolding between the characters on screen and the director’s toying with the audience. And, if nothing else, Pastoll revels in the latter with the same kind of glee his predecessor did, as his Road Games is a wicked, deceptive little thriller that delights in the audience’s bewilderment.
Uneasiness abounds, as it always should when dealing with hitchhikers in foreign countries, particularly when a serial killer has been wreaking havoc in the area. Jack (Andrew Simpson) is a British twentysomething looking to find his way back home from France, where he saunters down the highway in desperate need of a ride. Along the way, he rescues a girl named Veronique (Josephine de la Baum) from a confrontation on the roadside, as she appears to be arguing with a boyfriend of some sort. When the guy speeds off, he leaves both Jack and Veronique stranded, allowing the two to bond overnight before hitting the road the next morning. Now searching for a ride together, the couple hitches a ride with Grizard (Frederic Pierrot), a kind (but odd) French stranger who suggests they spend the night with him and his wife, Mary (Barbara Crampton). Reluctant but sensing no alternative, Jack and Veronique agree to stay over for what proves to be an uncomfortable evening.
Road Games is the type of movie where menace and uncertainty linger in every frame. With the exception of the natural distrust of strangers and the whispers of the nearby serial killer, Pastoll doesn’t script a ton of explicit uneasiness during the early-going. Instead, it lingers in Daniel Elm’s brooding score, the wry performances, and the subtle moments that leave you wondering just what this bunch is up to. Everyone grows to be a suspect, including Jack himself, who drops playful hints that he might be the serial killer and Veronique might be far too trusting. It’s just a joke, of course—or is it? For a long while here, nothing is certain, and Pastoll provides enough evidence to indict anyone: at a certain point, I had talked myself into every character being a viable suspect. Look how the wife rummages through Jack’s stuff! Grizard seems awfully insistent about these two staying the night (and perhaps another)! Jack’s weirdly obsessed with the serial killer’s whereabouts! Why is Veronique so cagey about her past?
That’s pretty much how Road Games plays out for an hour, and while that feels like it should be interminable, it glides along on this intrigue. If the mark of a true master is the ability to string an audience along with a thin thread, then Pastoll shows glimpses of mastery by allowing the intrigue to derive from the characters and the dread atmosphere surrounding them. Something fucked is bound to happen; the only question is who will be involved in the deed. It almost feels like the cinematic equivalent of a shell game, as Pastoll shuffles clues throughout and practically invites the audience to pick which one is actually pertinent. He knows what you’re here for and has fun toying with those expectations and allowing the intrigue to drag on until he really upends the situation during the 3rd act.
Obviously, the performers do a good bit of the leg work here, as no thriller is that intriguing if its characters aren’t. Simpson is deceptive as the apparently bland Jack, who’s seemingly come prepackaged with the twentysomething white dude backpacking through Europe backstory that involves an ex-girlfriend and a broken heart. The way he finds a shiftiness lurking below this hound-dog façade is crucial, especially when it’s revealed that he is apparently just a nice guy who has fallen head over heels for Veronique. Given de la Baum’s performance, it’s no wonder that’s happened: she’s absolutely striking in the role, capable of playing the standard French ingénue and the plucky, resourceful survivor if need be. After all, she’s the one that tries to talk Jack out of wandering into an obviously shady situation (though there might be a reason for that since suspicious abounds so plentifully here).
And of course, you can’t help but be intrigued by the odd couple that takes them in. Pierrot is the more obviously strange one here, as he’s prone to saying strange things aloud at the dinner table, especially about the pleasures of eating flesh, an odd turn that basically invites you to assume we’re dealing with goddamn cannibals or some French riff on Motel Hell. Even his innocuous nighttime conversation with Jack feels vaguely menacing since Pierrot leans into the eccentric foreigner routine—at a certain point, it’s possible to seem too friendly. (It doesn’t help that’s constantly leering at Veronique.) On the other hand, Crampton is all hemmed up as Grizard’s wife, a woman who seems to be shaken by something. Her lonely, desperate eyes always hint that there’s something she wants to tell Jack (well, besides her ominous warning to lock his door), and those furtive glances towards her husband raise constant suspicion. Crampton’s casting is a clever move, as it plays off of her reputation as a genre favorite in almost disarming fashion—sure, there’s something a little strange about it, but is Barbara Crampton really capable of being complicit in something horrible?
Pastoll teases out these possibilities for about an hour before making with more explicitly suspicious activity. Audiences watch as a silhouetted figure under the moonlight buries a body, perhaps using the same shovel Grizard brandished earlier. When Jack awakes the next morning, Veronique is nowhere to be found, and both Grizard and his wife insist she left. Jack can’t believe it, not when she just pledged her love to him the night before. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have time to dwell on it since…well, let’s just say he’s knocked unconscious and wakes up in the back of a pickup truck. For a minute or so, it looks like Pastoll has taken the easiest—and perhaps lamest way out—by introducing a character that threatens to turn Road Games into a French Wolf Creek knock-off. However, it soon becomes clear enough that even this isn’t what it seems, as the film playfully hurtles towards a nifty stalk-and-slash climax that grows more intense as the truth is slowly revealed.
The eventual reveal is satisfying enough and undoubtedly plunges Road Games into pure schlock territory. This is not to say it’s a cheat, though a thorough re-examining does poke a few holes in some of the characters’ motivations. You kind of have to go with it, but I’ll allow it since it’s a neat enough twist that works just well enough and makes clever use of the language barrier between the characters. Plus, it most certainly “got me”—even though Pastoll has you suspecting everyone, it still manages to surprise on a couple of different levels, so I can only tip my cap to him, especially since he’s quite skilled behind the camera too. His slick widescreen compositions are often striking and put his Road Games in the same visual company as Franklin’s film. However, if Franklin was chasing the ghost of Hitchcock, the end credits here suggest Pastoll is chasing Carpenter. We’ll see about that, but this is an auspicious start, at least.