By Dylan Grant
College student Alan Parker has been obsessed with death ever since his father passed away, seeing it around every corner. When he sets out on the long trek home to visit his mother in the hospital, he is taken on a ride that will change him forever.
Riding the Bullet is steeped in the optimism of the 1960’s, the feeling that anything could happen. Society was changing and the future was uncertain. In this way, the entire film is a deep – and deeply personal – meditation on sixties optimism (or what some might now consider sixties naïveté), life, death, and getting old.
Based on the novella by Stephen King, which was written while King was still recuperating from his own brush with death, and directed by Mick Garris, Riding the Bullet is an old school campfire tale with heart, a solid B movie in every sense of the word. Garris is the perfect man to direct this film, having virtually made a career out of adapting King:Sleepwalkers, television miniseries versions of The Standand The Shining, a television miniseries of Desperation that is currently in production, and he has been linked to various versions of The Talisman over the last ten years. Garris seems to get King more than others who have adapted his work, and there is a respect for the material in Garris’ adaptations that is absent in others. That fact alone adds a layer to the film, a heart that is often missing.
This film is an actors’ piece, and the cast excellent all around. Jonathan Jackson is just right in the lead, conveying the perfect stoned disbelief. Is this really happening, or have I been smoking too much weed? He makes it familiar without turning it into a joke. Cliff Robertson is creepy-funny as the dying old man who carries Alan a few mile down the road, and Nicky Katt – who should probably be a bigger star than he is – is fun to watch as the weird-o hippie who first picks Alan up.
The standout in the cast is David Arquette as George Staub, the evil that has been creeping up on Alan the whole time. When Arquette first came on screen, I was afraid he would venture too much into Johnny Queefer territory (the character he brought to hilarious life on television’s Son of the Beach), but he tones himself down and imbues Staub with the right amount of menacing fun. Arquette will probably never be accused of being a great actor, but he can really excel in the right role, and that is exactly what he has here. (In a way Arquette’s role here is reminiscent of his turn in Roadracers, the 1994 film directed by Robert Rodriguez, another little seen film worth checking out.
At the heart of Riding the Bullet is a good story, well told, something every film needs but is hard to come by in this age of movies that are long on effects and short on just about everything else. Stephen King himself called the story, “simple but fun. Gets the job done.” That sums it up pretty well. As Alan moves down the road, there is the sense that something is building, that there is something waiting for him at the end of his journey that will change him forever.
None of this is to say that Riding the Bullet is a perfect film. Too often we move away from any authentic period flavor into a modern, hindsight view of the sixties, the idea that everyone at that time was smoking pot and into “mind expansion.” That cheapens certain scenes. The ending of the film lingers too long and becomes overly sentimental, and there is a lot of voice over that is just extraneous. There is more tragedy in watching characters speculate about things that we know will never happen that there is in being reminded through voice over of what never came to pass. There is something bittersweet about watching characters that are so much more optimistic than we are. All of this is offset by some great touches, particularly the brief film-within-the-film, also called Riding the Bullet, which looks like every great horror/road movie that was never made.
Riding the Bullet has had a limited theatrical release, next to nothing in the way of advertising, and the critical reception to the film has been sadly negative, but time will be good to this film. This will be one of those movies that people discover on DVD and wonder how they missed it in theaters. The story works on many levels, and the cast is great all around.
Dylan Grant link: http://www.moviefreak.com/contact_a.htm