There's a killer on the road in the indie production "Outside Ozona." And while that's hardly unusual for a low-budget genre pic, filmmaker J.S. Cardone does his level best to divert our attention from the obvious implications that fact fuels in the narrative. Taking the scenic route in this journey, he develops some colorful excursions and vivid side trips in a largely successful effort.

There’s a killer on the road in the indie production “Outside Ozona.” And while that’s hardly unusual for a low-budget genre pic, filmmaker J.S. Cardone does his level best to divert our attention from the obvious implications that fact fuels in the narrative. Taking the scenic route in this journey, he develops some colorful excursions and vivid side trips in a largely successful effort to keep an otherwise predictable ride from becoming tedious. Still, it’s a well-traveled road and there’s only so long one can wander into another lane before getting back on track. So, the mundane ultimately prevails and in the absence of a star cast, the film can’t expect to do more than scant theatrical business. Truly the modesty of the production and the intimate handling of the material is better suited for a small screen where the traffic is easier to navigate.

Intentionally structured like a car crash just waiting to happen, the multi-vehicle yarn occurs during one long, dark inclement night somewhere on the road between New Mexico and Texas. The principals all have good reason to be in gear and blind themselves to news reports that a serial killer is somewhere in the vicinity and apt to be contributing to the road kill.

Odell Parks (Robert Forster) is hauling a volatile load when he stops for a caffeine refuel. A salt of the earth type, he extends himself to Reba Twosalt (Kateri Walker), a native woman who’s run out of gas down the road. She and her grandmother are driving to Corpus Christi so the old woman can see the sea one last time. Also behind the wheel are Wit Roy (Kevin Pollak), a circus clown who just got fired and is shy about $100 to get to Las Vegas and the prospect of work; His girlfriend Earlene (Penelope Ann Miller), a former stripper with a plan; and sisters Marcy Duggan (Sherilyn Fenn) and Bonnie Mimms (Beth Ann Styne) who are off to their father’s funeral.

These riders on the storm — both literally and figuratively — are all tuned to a country and western station that uncharacteristically is playing jazz and blues. In addition to the elements being out of sync, disc jockey Dix Mayal (Taj Mahal) is dyspeptic because the station manager (Meat Loaf) has implored him to extend his shift when another platter spinner fails to show for work.

The set up is pretty easy to spot. The tenuously related characters and the killer will all meet up in a big finale somewhere down the road (not surprisingly near the title Ozona, Texas).

On a moment to moment basis “Outside Ozona” works relatively well. There’s a degree of poignancy in the loneliness of the widowed long-distance hauler and his brief flirtation as well as the plight of the couple in trouble. Any one of the motoring stories, or the police trackdown or the vigil in the radio station, is grist for a movie unto itself.

It’s no surprise then that individually, these vignettes seem contrived and simplistic whenever there’s a pit stop in the narrative momentum. The most predictable component occurs when the sisters pick up Alan Defaux (David Paymer), apparently broken down at the side of the road and clearly the odds on favorite to be the lethal menace. We don’t have long to wait for conformation and, again to form, his need to be heard is given voice on Dix’s program.

The ensemble is basically fighting to enliven one-dimensional roles and some fare better at the task than others. Forster, in particular, is a standout, having mastered the art of humanity over content. But Pollak and Miller are also effective and the scenes between Taj Mahal and Meat Loaf have an urgency and humanity that provide a weight other sections sorely lack. The weakest link, ironically, involves the section with Paymer and Fenn, which has not an iota of invention and hovers on the edge of parody.

Cardone has a firm grasp on the technical aspects of “Outside Ozona,” wrapping it in an eerie cloak of darkness and finding the appropriate pacing to keep audience interest. A considerably more ambitious and nuanced movie than his earlier genre outings he just falls short of keeping all the myriad dramatic “balls” aloft in this grim fairy tale.

Outside Ozona

Production

A Sony Pictures release of a TriStar Pictures/Millennium Films presentation in association with NuImage of a Sandstorm Films production. Produced by Carol Kottenbrook and Scott Einbeinder. Executive producers, Avi Lerner, Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short, Boaz Davidson, John Thompson. Directed, written by J.S. Cardone.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem), Irek Hartowicz; editor, Amanda Kirpaul; music, Taj Mahal, Johnny Lee Schell; production design, Martina Buckley; art director, Hector Velez; set decorator, Ivana Letica; sound (Dolby/SDDS), George Burton Goen II; assistant director, Sholto Roeg; casting, Abra Edelman, Elisa Goodman. Review at Raleigh Studios, L.A., Dec. 16, 1998. MPAA Rating: R. Running Time: 100 MINS.

With

Odell Parks - Robert Forster Wit Roy - Kevin Pollak Marcy Duggan - Sherilyn Fenn Alan Defaux - David Paymer Earlene Demers - Penelope Ann Miller Rosalee - Swoosie Kurtz Dix Mayal - Taj Mahal Floyd Bibbs - Meat Loaf Reba Twosalt - Kateri Walker Agent Deene - Lucy Webb Effie Twosalt - Lois Red Elk Bonnie Mimms - Beth Ann Styne

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