Film Review: Drifter

A cannibal thriller that runs on fumes, stuck navigating an all-too familiar genre roadmap.
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Chris von Hoffmann’s Drifter is a cinematic collage assembled from better movies. Cannibal nightmares that bite into oddness, or dystopian horror stories that depict a desolate lifestyle. Writer-director von Hoffmann attempts to evoke these same nightmares, but relies too heavily on homages at the expense of his own stunted story. Characters move from point A to point B, just so another “fan-friendly” Easter egg can be hidden in plain sight. Such nods are fine when used with restraint, but individuality is paramount to genre success—something von Hoffman learns the hard way.

Aria Emory and Drew Harwood star as Miles and Dominic Pierce, two “outlaw brothers.” They drive a busted-up sedan down uninhabited desert roads, robbing outposts along the way. It’s during one of these raids that Miles is shot in the hand, which shifts their immediate focus to medical attention. Not that hospitals even exist anymore—Dominic needs to find anyone who can save his brother. This leads the Pierce boys to Demyl, where a woman named Vijah (Monique Rosario) tends to Miles—but also brings a heap of trouble.

It turns out that Demyl is ruled by a “family” of cannibals, under the guidance of Doyle (James McCabe). He’s a dapperly dressed psychopath with clown-red hair who doesn’t take kindly to Dominic’s stern attitude. You know Doyle’s kind—the smooth-talking cult leader who lets his minions get their hands dirty. Sasha (Rebecca Fraiser) first distracts Dominic with her voracious sexual appetite, and then Latos (Anthony Ficco) gets physical with Miles’ brother. Doyle finishes Dominic off with a swift baseball bat swing, and Miles is taken captive. Welcome to Demyl!

At this point in Drifter—as Miles is left brotherless and wounded—von Hoffman fails to establish world-building intrigue. Instead of introducing an apocalyptic scenario or some kind of off-the-map horror locale, we’re given scene after scene of directionless driving. Von Hoffman teases isolation through long-distance landscape shots, or conversations under bright, twinkling stars. This is meant to suggest that Drifter takes place in a lawless, alternate reality—yet the setting is never established. It all feels like Wild West flesh-chomping for the hell of it, without a backstory to comprehend.

None of this is salvaged after Dominic bites the dust either. Drifter goes the route of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, where lunatic killers become the film’s focal point. Doyle’s clan are savage types who eat humans, fornicate publically and embrace a Manson-family dynamic. They’re hobo carnies with a taste for human meat, yet their vile lifestyle is nothing but carnage without a cause. Nastiness without necessity. Evil people doing worse things, all in the name of a midnight-movie laugh. Horror fans will recognize these damning flaws all too well, and reject the slightness of the material.

You’ve seen every movie Drifter mimics, all of which offer more entertainment. Von Hoffman can’t even pay off the film’s final dinner scene without ripping straight from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, complete with a table shot of Doyle’s whole screwed-up posse. Your crowning finale, torn from the pages of classic horror lore. Every scene is one step away from including Papa Jupiter or Leatherface themselves—the “homages” are that heavy-handed.

Drifter is a well-intentioned genre journey, but von Hoffmann doesn’t take the checkered flag with his feature debut. Beyond the overused influences, von Hoffmann employs distracting sound design and film-school camera whips that stink of generic exploitation. It’s The Hills Have Eyes with no radiating vibrancy. The Bad Batch without Ana Lily Amirpour’s vision. Butcher Boys without even the basest exploration of where cannibalistic hunger grows from. Two brothers, some prosthetic body parts and one unfulfilling meal—it’s the recipe for a letdown.

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