By Matthew Price
Apocalypse Road starts in the post-post apocalypse, with an old woman recounting the fall of civilization.
Then we flash back to two sisters (played by Katie Kohler and Ashlyn McEvers) on the titular road. Much of the suspense derives from guessing which one survives to become the old woman and who doesn’t make it.
The sisterly bond between Kohler and McEvers is realistic and at time touching, so it’s disappointed when they get separated at the end of the first act. The film delivers their stories in parallel, with one becoming enmeshed in a conspiracy of unclear motivations, while the other follows the more standard man-is-the-real-monster plot we’ve come to expect from this genre.
As with most independent films, the quality of the acting is very uneven (outside of the lead roles). Lance De Los Santos is a powerful presence in a nearly silent role, while Tiffany Heath chews the scenery like she’s been starving in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and Todd Jenkins is a poor man’s Mark Boone, Jr. Luckily, this is a road movie, and none of the supporting cast stick around for long (except for De Los Santos, thankfully). The main draw here is the journey.
At times, that journey can be visually stunning. Director Brett Bentman and cinematographer/editor Michael Ray Lewis favor the long-take style that seems to be in vogue these days, utilizing it to great effect for both slow, contemplative scenes, and thrilling chases.
But the low budget shows its seams, as well. The extended takes are often used in talky exposition scenes as a way to shoot faster without coverage. It’s not the worst sin an indie film can commit, but the technique stands out even more when juxtaposed against other, better scenes.
I was also not shocked to find no production designer, or even set decorator, among the film’s credits. The costume design, by Tiffany McEvers (mother of star Ashlyn), is on point, illuminating character and fitting well with the world, but the sets are almost entirely uninspired. They mostly look like locations that would be abandoned now, in the present. It looks less like the apocalypse and more like a tour of America’s neglected industrial complex.
As the movie progresses, the visuals become more hallucinatory and abstract. They’re used to great effect, making it difficult to determine what’s real and what isn’t. At a certain point, I wondered if we were heading towards a bullshit she-was-dead-the-entire-time ending but thankfully (spoiler alert) that didn’t happen.
The actual ending is moving and bittersweet in an inevitable way. (Again, it’s pretty obvious someone isn’t going to make it.) The emotions feel earned, even if there are bumps along the road to get there.
Ultimately, the filmmakers’ reach exceeds their grasp with Apocalypse Road. I’d love to see them tackle a movie whose ambitions are more in line with their production budget. As for this film, if you’re willing to look past some less-than-stellar production values and the occasional hammy performance, I recommend giving it a shot.