Wander (2020) Review
Wander was directed by April Mullen and written by Tim Doiron who also collaborated on 88 and Dead Before Dawn. It stars Aaron Eckhart (Midway, Battle Los Angeles), Heather Graham (The Last Son, Horns), Tommy Lee Jones (No Country for Old Men, Rolling Thunder), Katheryn Winnick (Radio Free Albemuth, Polar), Brendan Fehr (The Commando, 13 Eerie) and Raymond Cruz (The Curse of La Llorona, Havoc). It follows a private investigator who studies a small town who becomes certain that the town is involved with a conspiracy, the same one that killed his daughter.
The Plot: Doiron doesn’t hold back when it comes to originality, with unconventional protagonists, motivations, detailing, and the outcome. It’s refreshing to see enthusiasm about the plot coming from the director and writer, even if the script lays on too many turns and contrivances. Conspiracy theorists and podcasters Arthur (Eckhart) and Jimmy (Jones) get a call from a woman convinced her daughter was killed by the cops in a coverup in the small town of Wander.
Since the girl had a strikingly similar wound to his last case, Arthur is compelled to go, leaving Jimmy and his friend Shelley (Graham) at home. The town seems off upon entry, with sheriff Santiago (Cruz) already on Arthur’s case. Arthur sees the mysterious Elsa (Winnick) tagging along with Santiago and continues his investigation despite the increasing risk, paranoia, and a “throw it at the wall and hope it sticks” mentality towards the depth of the conspiracy.
The Characters: Arthur makes for a compelling lead thanks to his unstable state of mind ever since the vehicle crash that paralyzed his wife and killed his daughter. What he saw after the event involving the last case he was on is unfortunately nebulous and never fully elaborated on, but everything else about him works. He’s so battered, proficient, and devoted to his mission that it’s hard not to at least sympathize. It’s the supporting characters that lag behind, with most of the weight being pulled by the actors and not due to above-average writing.
Jimmy is essentially a sidekick that finds cases, leads the podcast, and symbiotically gets along with Arthur. Shelley is less involving since her relationship with the guys is, again, never elaborated on. She clearly cares for and believes in Arthur, but it would’ve been nice to know why. Elsa and Santiago are again a step-down, oftentimes being suspicious for the sake of it, but they do act well as a link between the past and present.
The Mystery: Wander mostly succeeds at creating an air of unease and inviting the audience to ask questions and to doubt any of the potential answers. A lot of the first half is very well calculated, giving Arthur a reason to go to the town which acts suspicious of him because of the near absence of visitors and people knowing who Arthur is by running his plates. Some may say it’s all a little too coincidental or too perfect and that is true, the movie could’ve been hazier and had Arthur in places after the fact and not perfectly timed; but then that’s partially the point.
Where the script fumbles is with answering the questions. Arthur and Elsa come to the conclusion that the people of Wander physically cannot leave, both citing a doctor that is never shown. Many cases where crucial details are left out of the explanation show up, from the body of the victim of Arthur’s last case being stolen to an “Oryon Project” that Arthur somehow knows about. Wander performs its mystery at its best in the first half but starts to cheat in the second, it’s a massive blow to the movie.
The Technics: One of the first things that popped out in the movie is the look. Cinematography by Russ De Jong (Live Evil, Walking Supply) and Gavin Smith (Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed, A Christmas Horror Story) is reason enough to keep all eyes on the screen, capturing the dusty and isolated town and all its quirks. The editing of the movie does make some of the mystery look manufactured, however. Key details that Arthur explains to others are only shown in brief flashbacks even though the movie already took us there along with Arthur, but deliberately cuts scenes early to make for a punchier reveal that would’ve landed just fine without artificial obfuscation.
Eckhart holds Wander together when it threatens to implode under all of the possible answers to its crazy questions and bonkers scenarios. It’s because of his and the writer’s enthusiasm and the unorthodox mystery that Arthur finds himself in that Wander’s outlandishness seems believable and becomes imminently watchable.
Wander is available on DVD as well as on Digital platforms. You can check with JustWatch for availability in your country.