“HE WENT THAT WAY” | Movie Review

A man with an ice skating chimpanzee picks up a hitchhiking serial killer. What sounds like the beginning of a joke is actually a true story and the basis for the flawed new film “He Went That Way.” In 1964, a man named Dave Pitts was traveling Route 66 with his trained chimpanzee (who skated in the Ice Capades) when he picked up a young man in need of a ride. His passenger turned out to be a serial killer.

Evan M. Wiener adapts Conrad Hillberry’s true crime book about the incident, Luke Karamazov, while Australian cinematographer Jeffrey Darling (who died shortly after finalizing principal photography) makes his feature directing debut. Zachary Quinto plays the film’s version of Dave Pitts who becomes the captive of his murderous pickup, played by Jacob Elordi. The story of their three-day ordeal is engrossing, but Darling’s film fails to achieve any intended tension that could have been mined from the tale.

Jim (Quinto) is an animal handler traveling with his chimpanzee (rendered with subpar motion capture) and looking to secure an entertainment job for both of them. While at a stop, Jim offers a ride to Bobby (Elordi), a young man who claims to have been in the Air Force and only wants to make it home to his girlfriend in Wisconsin. As the two men travel towards Chicago, Jim’s trip becomes an ordeal once he discovers the darker nature of his passenger.

The picture fails to make it believable how the timid Jim would be seduced by the blue jean jacket-wearing, cigarette-smoking Bobby, who exudes danger at first sight. It is damaging for Wiener’s script to present Bobby in the manner of Martin Sheen’s Kit Carruthers from the 1973 Terence Malick classic “Badlands”. Sheen’s character was based on serial killer Charles Starkweather, and there were reasons for his design. While I am not sure of the intricacies of the real person, Elordi’s cliched presentation and the overdone mannerisms simply do not work. While the actor can be very good in projects such as HBO’s “Euphoria” and last year’s “Saltburn”, this project finds Elordi trying too hard in a self-conscious and mannered portrayal.

Zachary Quinto is almost too nonachalant. Even after Bobby’s violent reality is revealed, the actor’s low key performance is false, hurting the edginess of their moments together. The biggest affront to these usually fine actors is in the way the picture has two men form an unlikely bond, shaky as it may be. The screenplay goes so far as to suggest Jim may have a sexual attraction to Bobby, perhaps in the hope of rationalizing the ridiculous side adventures the two men have on their way to Illinois. With every unnecessary subplot the film continues to lose its grip, becoming tonally askew from scene to scene.

While one would assume Jim and Bobby’s trip offers up many cinematic possibilities, Sean Bagely’s camera never properly captures the feel for their short life on the road. There are vistas, mountains, and sun-drenched highways, but these are only shot in passing as the filmmakers fail to take advantage of their surroundings. Unfortunately, this keeps the film too visually static, even as the two men (and chimp) barrel down the highways of America.

The situations that transpire during the film are saddled with an unfortunate inauthenticity that hampers the drama, while the performances from the two leads (and the direction) fail to find a spark. By the time director Jeffery Darling frames a passing shot of a young girl twirling her baton while a Springsteen-esque harmonica plays softly, the moment reeks of desperation and becomes a painful reminder of the better film (and song) to which the moment pays homage.

While certainly watchable and with a unique story to tell, “He Went That Way” feels too distant from its own material,  and, in turn, puts the audience’s interest level well beyond reach.