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Riding the Bullet

Year: 2004
Production Co: Motion Picture Corporation of America
Director: Mick Garris
Writer: Mick Garris
Cast: Jonathan Jackson, Barbara Hershey, David Arquette, Cliff Robertson, Matt Frewer

Mick Garris has always called this his most personal film, and you can see why if you know anything about his history and watch it until the end. The personal bit is delivered in voiceover by the middle aged version of the main character as a soliloquy about death and saying goodbye.

None of which means anything that happens beforehand makes any more sense. I don't remember if I've read the Stephen King novella this is based on, but I'll bet it was more cohesive than this. The overarching plot (I think) is of a young man hitchhiking back home to see his sick mother some time in the 1960s and who stumbles upon a supernatural presence that commands him to make an impossible choice.

But the stuff that's supposed to be real, make-believe, imagined or paranormal before we even get to that point is such a mishmash of motifs, images and ideas you'll never know where you are. Depicting the inner monologue of the main character by having a doppelganger only he can see appearing in the frame to talk directly to him is one way of doing it, but it's very cack handed and you have no clue if it means he himself has supernatural powers or it's just the way thing are in his life and we as the audience are supposed to accept it.

But whatever happens to him, Alan Parker (Jonathan Jackson) is at college and apparently harbouring suicidal thoughts when he gets a call that his beloved mother Jean (Barbara Hershey) is sick and possibly dying in a Maine hospital after a stroke.

Although one of the early flashbacks shows the pair waiting in a long line for the titular roller coaster, and when he chickens out she swats him viciously over the head in anger. Why is he returning home to an apparently abusive parent, we're left wondering (and which is never fully explained)?

But Alan has little choice but to hitch all the way, falling in with various oddballs. One is a talkative old timer his doppelganger self is trying to convince him is dying or might try to kill him (I couldn't figure out which). Another is an army deserter in a kombi van who crashes it barely 10 minutes after Alan gets in. In each case he leaves the weird people he's been riding with and they're gone from the story, not really adding anything.

But the main antagonist is George Staub (David Arquette), who picks Alan up despite seeming familiar and smelling slightly of formaldehyde. Alan soon realises to his horror that he's seen George's grave in a cemetery where he hid from two pursuing rednecks (I've already forgotten how he got there or where they came from). The guy driving the car who's giving him the slightly aggressive third degree about his life and who can tell when Alan himself is lying is the now-deceased George.

George's job/curse is apparently to ferry people to the afterlife when he can trick them into taking rides with him, and he gives Alan a choice. Either Alan himself or his mother is going to die that night, and if Alan doesn't pick one George promises he'll take them both.

I'm sure King's story was far more allegorical and structurally sound, because in this version, all those stakes are raised and nothing subsequently happens, making it seem like Alan imagined the entire thing in a funk of depressive-anxiety mania.

It feels when Garris wrote the script he was in too much of a hurry to get to the stuff that was really important to him – when the far more grown up Alan tells us about how his mother lived to a ripe old age and died peacefully. Until then, he seems to have chucked every idea he had at the wall to see what would stick just to carry us there.

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