You’d better pray Arthur Breznik is crazy. Because otherwise, we’re in real trouble.
An ex-detective with post-traumatic stress, Arthur’s currently living way off the grid and battling bad dreams and horrific hallucinations. He’s also convinced there’s a government conspiracy to kidnap people and implant them with tracking devices.
But, you know, just because he’s a paranoid schizophrenic doesn’t mean he’s wrong.
That’s the great starting point for Wander, an often exciting, often unhinged thriller that piles puzzle on top of puzzle, crams flashback inside of flashback. Cryptic (and sometimes just plain confusing), it’s like a super-sized episode of The X Files – assuming Mulder had not only lost the practical Scully, but much of his sanity.
Directed with flash and fury by April Mullen, it stars Aaron Eckhart as Arthur, a man who’s barely holding on. An awful automobile accident killed his daughter, and left his wife hopelessly brain-damaged. Now he lives in an old RV out in the desert, emerging sporadically to work an insurance-fraud stakeout for a supportive friend, or co-host a crazy internet radio show with another enabling one.
Then a grieving mother asks Arthur to investigate her daughter’s death. And down the rabbit hole he goes, into a dark and dangerous world of threatening sheriffs, subterranean labs, mysterious government agents and anonymous attacks.
It’s a stressful adventure for someone who had trouble keeping a grip to begin with – and, admitted, Tim Doiron’s script sometimes loses its grip, too, going nearly as mad as poor Arthur. But the film is anchored by a couple of strongly different and perfectly complementary performers.
The first is Eckhart who is completely committed to the should-be committed Arthur, playing him as a twitchy, unwashed wild man who both knows how crazy he sounds and yet, frustratingly, knows he’s right. The second is Tommy Lee Jones, as the old desert rat who shares his friend’s obsessions, and his beer, but still has one foot in reality (imagine the old lawman of No Country for Old Men, grown older and colder).
Admitted, holding this film together isn’t easy. Although Mullen has an eye for strong compositions and primal, primary colors, the jarring edits and time shifts make things more mysterious than they need to be. (The film could have used its own version of the plain-spoken Cigarette Smoking Man from The X Files, although as an insurance investigator, Heather Graham keeps things lightly tied to the real world.)
And while pulp adventures can be profound, they shouldn’t be self-important. The film opens with a painfully serious dedication to “all Indigenous, Black and People of Color who are targeted and have been displaced through border control on stolen land” along with a hope the film will help “to expose government violence, propel change and honor the Voices of those who have been silenced.”
That’s a Wokefulness a movie about mad doctors can’t easily support.
But push past the self-conscious politics, ignore the unnecessarily convoluted storytelling and try just giving yourself over to the film’s startling visuals and conspiratorial terrors. It may not make much sense at times. But then neither does real life these days — and Wander is a lot more entertaining.