A “Jacob’s Ladder”-ish paranoid thriller arriving just in time to find conspiracy theories plunked right in the middle of post-election American politics, “Wander” only muddies the water further. This latest collaboration between director April Mullen and writer Tim Doiron offers yet another unpredictable shift (from the tongue-in-cheek horror of “Dead Before Dawn 3D,” straight thriller “88,” comedy “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” etc.), but pushes its idiosyncrasies off a cliff before establishing any narrative terra firma.
There is some pleasure to be had in watching an atypically frenetic Aaron Eckhart as a PTSD-afflicted loner wading deep into possibly-imagined evildoings in the Southwest, with Tommy Lee Jones and Heather Graham also welcome as two allies. Still, the film’s hyperbolic style and convoluted storytelling tend to exhaust patience rather than build intrigue, making for a muddle whose too-many twists and turns ultimately seem meaningless as well as implausible. Saban Films is releasing the Canadian co-production to American audiences via digital, on demand and available theaters Dec. 4.
At the town limits of desert hamlet Wander, a young woman who staggers from a car wreck is nonetheless killed moments later by an apparent escape-prevention device planted on her person. Ninety miles away, ex-homicide detective Arthur (Eckhart) and crusty-coot pal Jimmy (Jones) are cohosts of a conspiracy-oriented podcast mulling such hot topics as the Illuminati and purported secret government “human testing facilities.”
Living in a trailer with his dog, ever-armed and ready for, uh, something, Arthur has been of shaky mental health since losing his wife and daughter (the first survived but is catatonic) in a still-unsolved accident two years ago. His friend Shelley (Graham) blames Jimmy’s influence for the fixation on wingnut imaginings. Arthur appreciates her concern, while also assuming her new FBI-agent boyfriend (Brendan Fehr) only moved here to keep an eye on him. This is the sort of movie in which everyone’s suspicions about anything turn out to be at least partially correct.
When the two podcasters get a distressed call from a woman (Deborah Chavez) claiming her daughter — the victim from the beginning — has been murdered, Jimmy commits a reluctant Arthur to investigating. He finds Wander duly an oddball place, with locals giving the stranger suspicious side-eye and the sheriff (Raymond Cruz) immediately pulling him over. Yet as conspicuous as he is, no one stops the twitchy hero from overhearing incriminating conversations, or repeatedly breaking-and-entering to gather evidence. Soon he’s uncovered what looks like a nefarious government conspiracy involving immigrants, implants, a sort of underground surgery-prison and more. But Arthur’s medications (or failure to take them) mean all this may be delusional, even as the bodies pile up.
His no-longer-chiseled features further buried under facial scruff, loping around with a limp like John Heard in “Cutter’s Way,” Eckhart looks more like latter-day Jeff Bridges than his clean-cut self of yore. He really throws himself into Arthur’s escalating, blackout-riddled distress, sustaining sympathy and interest in a highly physical, energized performance.
But “Wander” itself is too jittery from the start, its otherwise attractive camerawork (credited to both Gavin Smith and Russ De Jong) always wobblingly handheld. Dream sequences, flashbacks and miscellaneous montages keep ramping up Luke Higginson’s already hyperactive editorial pace. There’s no time allotted to establishing atmosphere or building tension, so a plot that should unfold as an intricate puzzle-box instead seems like a burst bag of secondhand toys, unappealing and random.
Despite incorporating some politically relevant themes, the film upends its own logic so many times, it might just as well turn out to be about conspiratorial space aliens. Nor is there the kind of absurdist flair that could have lent this whole enterprise an alleviating edge of the fantastical — “Wander” is finally all too literal-minded.
Nonetheless, this overheated crockpot is watchable, thanks mostly to Eckhart, but also to the somewhat under-utilized Lee, as well as Graham, who lends a sizable if ill-defined role much empathetic warmth. Less fortunate is Katherine Winnick, dressed and acting like a femme fatale (exactly what government agency favors tight, fringed black leather outfits?), a part that starts out a bit silly and only gets more so.