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The Driftless Area (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 26, 2020

The Driftless Area

The Driftless Area


Starring Anton Yelchin, Zooey Deschanel, John Hawkes, Alia Shawkat, Aubrey Plaza, Ciarán Hinds, Frank Langella, Benjamin Rogers, Primo Allon, Gary Hetherington, Lucia Frangione, Elika Portnoy and Amitai Marmorstein.

Screenplay by Tom Drury & Zachary Sluser.

Directed by Zachary Sluser.

Distributed by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.  96 minutes.  Rated R.

Zooey Deschanel has cemented her image as a sweet and adorkable (they even invented a word for her!) woman in romantic comedies.  Because of that, it is easy to forget that in the first decade or so of the 2000s, she pretty much split that character with another archetype – the sexy, hip and inscrutable indie film goddess, a gorgeous-but-mysterious woman who suddenly appears in the lives of dorky loser men and completely rocked their world, usually eventually breaking their heart.

For every big budget girlfriend role in something like Elf, or Yes Man, or Failure to Launch there is a long-forgotten indie film like The Good Life, or Gigantic, or The Go-Getter.  In fact, her breakthrough romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer was more of a play on her indie film character than her more cute-girl roles.

In recent years, she has been tied up in the TV series which has totally cemented her image, the FOX comedy New Girl.  Because of that, her limited time for films has been mostly used on more of the studio projects that exploit her adorably sparkly personality.

The Driftless Area is the first time she has returned to her indie goddess roots in several years, and honestly it’s not exactly a good fit on her anymore.  Granted, she’s not the lead character here (she never is in the indies), but the whole film pretty much revolves around her anyway (as it always does in these films).

Playing a beautiful-but-numbed stranger who ends up accidentally becoming a focal point in a rural crime drama, Deschanel has to dim her sparkly personality to a point where almost every line comes out in a monotone.  The character’s emotionally closed-off state is eventually mostly explained in the storyline, but it’s still a massive waste of acting charisma.

Of course, she’s not the only actor here who has to tamp down their emotions in the odd southern Gothic.  Former child star Anton Yelchin, who has never been overly outgoing anyway, nearly disappears in his character’s introverted nature.  Other extremely capable actors, such as Frank Langella, Cieran Hinds, Aubrey Plaza and Alia Shawkat all tone down their natural spark, playing everything with a resigned shrug.

The only real character who overcomes this sense of deadness is Shane, the bad guy played by John Hawkes.  The guy is a massive tool, you can tell that from the second you meet him, but at least he has a sense of life and some passion in him.

Based on a novel by Tom Drury (who also co-wrote the screenplay), The Driftless Area tells an overwrought gothic look at small-town life.  Pierre (Yelchin) has returned to his old hometown, having a violent altercation with small-time criminal Shane after his car breaks down.  Shane is working as muscle for hire for the local car dealer (Hinds).  Drifting into their world also includes a mysterious woman from out of town named Stella (Deschanel) who seems confused by her memories and as to why she is there and Langella as a do-gooder who otherwise keeps to himself.

The plot goes through a whole series of twists and turns – some of which make sense, some of which don’t really.  The film also goes to some extremes to try to create a happy-ever-after ending.

The Driftless Area has way too much talent behind it and way too much plot to be as uninvolving as it ends up being.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2016 All rights reserved. Posted: May 1, 2016.

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