A tidy little ghost story, with interesting characters, a captivating performance by up-and-comer Emily Blunt, and locations of breathtakingly beautiful austerity, this TriStar release deserved better than to be dumped into theatres without critics' screenings.
Like a tale told by the fireplace on a cold winter's night, we begin with an unnamed college boy (Ashton Holmes) and girl (English actress Blunt, talking American and virtually unrecognizable from her electric turn as a Brit bitch fashion assistant in The Devil Wears Prada). He's a lower-income, sheltered Eastern Philosophy major with a beat-up car and naively romantic dreams. She's a glossy, angry shell who needs to share a car ride home to Delaware this Christmas holiday, rather than fly back as usual. The two opposites don't attract, but instead drive down ribbons of black highway, surrounded by mountains and snow, somewhere in Pennsylvania by way of The Shining. The raw and lonely landscape is so desperately barren and beautiful, you don't even mind that its jagged mountains are clearly nowhere east of the Rockies.
The boy eventually takes a "shortcut" through a "scenic" route off the interstate. He's already evinced some disturbingly inside knowledge about the girl, creeping her out with his semi-stalkerish comments. The fact that night's approaching and he's chosen this icy-white side road where even snow plows are afraid to go doesn't help ease her concerns. When a mysterious car runs them off the road, stranding them in weather that the radio says will reach 30 degrees below with the wind chill--which never happens in Pennsylvania, but whatever--the girl and the boy fight but eventually band together when they notice shadowy figures walking about on the fringes, and that the other car has left no tracks...
Director Gregory Jacobs, who's served as assistant director on many projects with two of this film's listed executive producers, George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, doesn't always shoot the darkened action in a particularly clear or easy-to-follow way, and that's a big failing. He also lets portentous loose ends go unexplained, such how nobody hears the screaming and door-pounding girl when she gets locked in the bathroom of a gas-station/diner early on, even though lots of people are around. But the film still builds its creepy mystery nicely, and when the ghosts finally appear, they really, really seem like poor miserable creatures more haunted than haunting--except for bad-ghost Martin Donovan, who plays the highway patrolman from Hell. Literally, probably.
The boy's backstory and his motivations for the trip prove a wicked comment on rom-com conventions, and Blunt delivers coolly nasty dialogue in a vulnerable way that subtly foreshadows the youthful insecurity she later reveals--it's a deceptively nuanced performance, one made all the more impressive when the stage-trained actress climbs a telephone pole amid a studio-set snowstorm. The whole thing gets a bit bogged down toward the end, rather than faster and scarier, but as big-screen ghost stories go, it does its job spookily well.
Why there's an R rather than PG-13 rating is one of those incomprehensible quirks of the rating system, since this is a Goosebumps for slightly more grown-up kids.