Film Review: Rushlights

A lackluster neo-<i>noir</i> thriller set deep in the dark heart of Texas, <i>Rushlights</i> delivers plot twists galore. If only the protagonists, a pair of hard-luck L.A. teens, were interesting enough to make audiences care what becomes of them.

Hunky Billy Brody (Josh Henderson, of TV's “Dallas” reboot) persuades Sarah (Haley Webb), a diner waitress, to hook up and start generating body heat in record time. Exactly one week later, Billy gets a frantic late-night phone call and rushes to her dismal apartment, where he finds a dead girl on the couch and Sarah weeping hysterically. The dead girl is her lookalike roommate, Ellen Niles, a junkie who OD'd after a fight with her dealer, a surly, English-accented mystery man who, conveniently, lives right next door.

With the practiced air of someone familiar with running away from trouble, Billy shoves some clothes into Sarah's suitcase and tells her they need to get out of town. It's not exactly clear why, since neither has done anything illegal, but if they'd called the police like sensible people (and to her credit, Sarah does suggest it, though not with much conviction), they never would have started down the hot, dusty road that eventually takes them to Tremo, Texas, a small town rife with big secrets.

Their destination is determined by a letter Sarah finds in her suitcase, which turns out not to be hers. It's Ellen's, and is from lawyer and old family friend Cameron Brogden (Aidan Quinn), informing her that she's the sole heir to her late Uncle Zachary's estate. Struck by Sarah's uncanny resemblance to Ellen—whose wallet, complete with driver's license, happens to be in the suitcase as well—Billy comes up with a plan: Sarah will pose as Ellen, who last visited Tremo, pop. 2087, 15 years ago, and the two of them will walk away with…well, something; the letter doesn't specify what Uncle Zachary was worth, but to be fair, it has to be more than they've got now.

Needless to say, things don't go as smoothly as the lovers anticipated, because if they did there'd be no reason for them to hang around Tremo, a sweltering flyspeck in the middle of Southwestern gothic nowheresville unofficially run by Sheriff Robert Brogden, Jr. (Beau Bridges), whose affability is barely skin-deep and doesn't extend to big-city types—he pointedly refers to Sarah and Billy as "foreigners." The cast expands to include a mess of shady characters, from Zachary's too-sweet, middle-aged housekeeper (Lorna Raver) to the mysterious and very volatile Eddie (Crispian Belfrage), who’s the kind of guy who drives a ’67 El Camino and can dig a bullet out of his own torso without fainting, none of whom amounts to much more than the sum total of his or her tics.

Purportedly "inspired by true events," director/co-writer Antoni Stutz's second feature (after 2001's You're Killing Me) is a trip into ersatz Jim Thompson territory, which includes any town whose "Welcome to…." sign features a down-home slogan like "We're Friendly Folks." The pieces are all there—smiling sociopaths, forlorn towns whose better days are long gone, dumb down-and-outers, hard-eyed hash slingers and apparently upright citizens as bent as paperclips—but they never coalesce into anything remotely convincing.

Rushlights is both perfectly watchable—if you sit through five minutes, you'll probably stay the course just to find out what the hell happens—and thoroughly forgettable; it's made for late-cable, where expectations are low and a little panache goes a long way. Oh, and just so you know, a rushlight is an archaic torch that burned hot and greasy.