You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Heatstroke’

Stephen Dorff and Svetlana Metkina star in this vividly photographed but generic and underwhelming survival thriller.

Stephen Dorff, Svetlana Metkina, Maisie Williams, Peter Stormare, Andrew Roux, Warrick Grier, Calvin Hayward, Jeanne Neilson. (English, Russian dialogue)

It may begin with a character racing across a desert with a small plane in hot pursuit, but “Heatstroke” is not, to put it gently, the second coming of “North by Northwest.” An underwhelming survival thriller about a fragile family unit beset by violent thugs while on a research expedition in South Africa, this first feature from writer-director Evelyn Maude Purcell in nearly 30 years (since her 1986 comedy, “Nobody’s Fool”) remains watchable largely due to its vivid location photography, providing a suitably scenic, dust-choked backdrop for the otherwise thoroughly generic proceedings. Low-key theatrical and VOD exposure awaits.

Stephen Dorff completists may be disappointed to learn (spoiler alert) that his character, a hyena specialist named Paul O’Malley, doesn’t stick around for long — a shame, too, since the perpetually underrated actor offers something for the viewer to latch onto amid the script’s initial pileup of domestic-angst cliches. Happily in love with his beautiful Russian girlfriend, Tally (Svetlana Metkina), Paul has a harder time connecting with his sullen teenage daughter, Jo (Maisie Williams, “Game of Thrones”), whose recent troubles at school seem rooted in her unresolved anger at her parents’ divorce. At her wits’ end, Jo’s mother (Jeanne Neilson) asks Paul to take the kid on his next African excursion for some long-overdue daddy-daughter bonding time. But Tally is along for the trip as well, and despite her best efforts to be pleasant, she soon clashes with Jo, who doesn’t do much besides remain glued to her iPad and give off attitude.

After some ominous foreshadowing underlined by repeatedly menacing hyena closeups, Paul is startlingly eliminated from the picture, leaving Jo and Tally alone in the desert with no car, extremely limited water and rations, and a gang of central-casting criminal sadists (led by a bored-looking Peter Stormare) on their tail. Fortunately, Tally turns out to be much tougher and more nature-savvy than her modelesque features might inititally suggest. Unfortunately, Jo is still an infuriating brat (her grief doesn’t seem to have yielded a meaningful attitude adjustment) and kind of an imbecile to boot, her clumsy, impulsive actions more than once putting her and Tally in unnecessarily grave danger.

Purcell and Anne Brooksbank adapted their screenplay from “Leave No Trace,” the first of two novels by Hannah Nyala West centered around the adventures of search-and-rescue worker Tally Nowata. But as played by Metkina, a likable screen presence not entirely at ease acting in English, Tally isn’t a character who really leaps off the screen, let alone seems ready to commandeer her own franchise. It doesn’t help that the well-wrangled hyenas — who gradually evolve into a portent of resilience and hope over the pic’s 91-minute running time — show considerably more personality than the film’s villains, with their knives, firearms and ill-defined motives. Ben Nott’s fine, atmospheric widescreen imagery of the dry, rugged South African terrain is the distinguishing element of a pro tech package.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Heatstroke'

Reviewed online, Los Angeles, July 2, 2014. Running time: 91 MIN.

Production: (South Africa-Germany) A Phase 4 Films (in U.S.) release of a Bold Films presentation of a Filmafrika/Apollomovie co-production. Produced by David Wicht, Theuns De Wet, Michel Litvak, David Lancaster. Executive producers, Gary Michael Walters, Evelyn Maude Purcell. Co-producers, Joerg Westerkamp, Thomas Becker, Vlokkie Gordon.

Crew: Directed by Evelyn Maude Purcell. Screenplay, Anne Brooksbank, Purcell; based on the novel "Leave No Trace" by Hannah Nyala West. Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Ben Nott; editor, Ronelle Loots; music, Paul Haslinger; music supervisor, Richard Walters; production designer, Emelia Weavind; set decorator, Anneke Botha; costume designer, Danielle Knox; sound (SDDS/Dolby Digital), Greg Albert; supervising sound editors, Darren "Sunny" Warkentin, Lon Bender; sound designer, Kris Fenske; re-recording mixer, Tim Hoogenakker; visual effects supervisors, Jason Human, Craig Parker; visual effects producer, Simon Hansen; visual effects, Brave New World; special effects coordinator, Julio Scholze; stunt coordinator, Gideon Van Schoor; line producer, Theuns De Wet; associate producer, Garrick Dion; assistant director, Jon-Luxe Lourens; casting, Mary Jo Slater, Janet Meintjes.

With: Stephen Dorff, Svetlana Metkina, Maisie Williams, Peter Stormare, Andrew Roux, Warrick Grier, Calvin Hayward, Jeanne Neilson. (English, Russian dialogue)

More Film

  • 4127_D022_00003_RC(l-r.) Elizabeth McGovern stars as Lady

    Box Office: 'Downton Abbey' Dominating 'Ad Astra,' 'Rambo' With $31 Million Opening

    “Downton Abbey” is heading for a positively brilliant opening weekend after scoring $13.8 million in domestic ticket sales on Friday. If estimates hold, the feature film version of the popular British television show should take home approximately $31 million come Sunday, marking the biggest opening ever for distributor Focus Features and beating previous record holder [...]

  • Gully Boy to represent India in

    'Gully Boy' to Represent India In Oscars Race

    The Film Federation of India has chosen Zoya Akhtar’s “Gully Boy” as its entry in the Academy Awards’ international feature film category. The picture, a coming of age tale about an aspiring rapper in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum premiered at the Berlin film festival in February before opening to a wave of acclaim at home in [...]

  • Lucy-Lost

    Cartoon Forum: 30th Anniversary, Little Giants and New Generations

    TOULOUSE, France –  Celebrating its 30th anniversary, Cartoon Forum wrapped Sept. 19 having showcased the ever-growing strength of European animation. 85 projects were pitched from 24 countries at the co-production forum platform that played host to north of 1,000 investors, distributors and producers – a record number. Falling on French-speaking Belgium – Wallonie-Bruxelles – whose [...]

  • Renee Zellweger Rufus Wainwright Sam Smith

    Renée Zellweger: Judy Garland Was 'My Childhood Hero'

    Awards buzz is building around Renée Zellweger for her performance as Judy Garland, emerging as a frontrunner in the Oscar race for best actress. But for her, the real prize was paying tribute to Garland, of whom she’s been a lifelong fan. “Nobody was prettier, nobody sang prettier…the adventures she had, [she was] my childhood [...]

  • Topic Studios

    Layoffs Hit Topic Studios as TV Division Relocates to West Coast (EXCLUSIVE)

    A small round of layoffs has hit Topic Studios this week in the television division, insiders familiar with the company told Variety. One of the insiders said three executives at the New York-based producer and distributor are out: senior vice president of scripted programming and Viacom alum Lisa Leingang, vice president of development Mona Panchal [...]

  • 'Downton Abbey' Music Gets 'Bigger, Better,

    As 'Downton Abbey' Hits the Silver Screen, the Music, Too, Gets 'Bigger, Better, Grander'

    When “Downton Abbey” fans hear that familiar strings-and-piano theme, a Pavlovian response ensues: Get to the television immediately, because you don’t want to miss a minute of the addictive Crawley family melodrama to follow. This week, with the “Downton Abbey” movie reaching theaters on Friday, fans can’t wait for their fix of Lady Mary and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content