Mixing bits from the playbook of Eric Red (“The Hitcher”) and standard films-noir-in-the-sand with echoes of Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” and Bruno Dumont’s “Twentynine Palms,” Sean Findley’s “Landers” toys with aud’s fears, but implausible plotline is unable to deliver the goods. Thriller involving a loser pizza delivery guy, his rising baseball-star buddy and their desert jaunt is too timid to be a rough-and-ready exploiter, and too weak to be an aesthetically macho work of pure filmmaking. Fests looking to fill their thriller slot may come to bat, but, with a less-than-thrilling title, only score looks to be latenight cable.
Ivan (Abby Ball) gets a call at his pizza delivery job from Matt (Paul Davidson), to whom he hasn’t spoken in years, but is now driving in from Florida to make a pit stop in Los Angeles and accompany Ivan on a desert hike. Why Matt would be so keen to hook up at this late date should raise suspicions in Ivan’s mind, but these never make it to the screen.
Conveniently, Ivan is in a heroin-induced stupor in his crummy apartment when a TV news flash appears reporting the latest strike by “the I-40 Killer,” a serial murderer who has been tallying interstate truckers. Portentously, the killer is now in the Joshua Tree area of the Southern California desert — exactly where Ivan and Matt are headed.
Either Matt also doesn’t listen to the news or is blithely ignoring the threat as he drives the pair into the deep, dark desert. Among the early clues something is wrong: When Ivan meets Matt at Matt’s parents’ home, mom glowers at Ivan and dad refuses to see him.
Extended dialogue of the two rolling down the road in the front seat is set and shot in pure noir tones, but the exchange is dull and delivered with little intrigue. While Matt has just been signed to a $3 million bonus-baby deal as a closer for the San Diego Padres, Ivan’s only news is that he never went past high school. Soon, Matt observes Ivan has some drugs and a needle in his backpack.
After the obligatory encounter with good-ol’-boy local cops and a desert hike, Matt picks up shady hitchhiker Vince (Dave Mortell). After the three leave a gas station, a bleeding corpse is found in the men’s room.
As clues and suspicions begin to pile up — and with the car disabled, forcing the characters to stay at a lonely lodge, “Landers” forces even semi-alert auds to pretty much conclude someone has a major hidden agenda. But back story doesn’t deliver the intended emotional impact.
Writer-director Findley fails to realistically stage pic’s slice of the massive FBI manhunt reported on the news. That this huge event in the hinterlands generates no conversation is beyond belief, robbing pic of significant tension.
Intent to depict desert environment as a threatening force of its own falls well short of the mark, especially in light of better such work on previous desert-shot pics. Like “Twentynine Palms,” last-minute danger ultimately materializes. Title refers to the town’s name.
Cast and production aspects are little better than average, with moments of overwrought emotions.