A little girl’s voice is heard over an image of flashing red and blue lights illuminating crime scene tape strung between tres, “Once there was a family of pioneers. They were looking for a better life.”. Thus begins Manifest West.
That family we find out is the Hayes family, Dave (Milo Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge, The Outpost), Alice (Annet Mahendru, Escape from Tomorrow, The Walking Dead: World Beyond), and their two daughters Mary (Madison Friedman), and Riley (Lexy Kolker, Freaks, Female Fight Squad) who serves as our narrator. After they “ran out of money” they move from the city to a more rural existence. Rural as in so far off the grid you might think you’re watching a Wrong Turn sequel.
Idyllic shots of the girls playing in the woods and family dinners are mixed with clues that things aren’t as idyllic as they seem. We overhear Dave asking his wife if this place is good for her and if it’s helping. And a visit from the local housing inspector (Ross Turner, The Bumbry Encounter, Go to Hell and Turn Left) casts doubt on how much research Dave did on their new home before they bought it.
Co-writer/directors Joe Dietsch and Louie Gibson, the team behind Happy Hunting, present us with what first appears to be a drama about getting away from the pressures of city life and reverting back to simpler ways.
We meet the family’s nieghbours Eric (Michael Cudlitz, Clarice, The Walking Dead) and Susie Lind (Dionne Audain, Ten-Cent Daisy, Doppelgänger) and Steve (Tim Heidecker, The People’s Joker, Spin Me Round), Ruth Danik (AprilAnn Dais, Adventure Harbor, What Lies Below) and Lana (Ava Kolker, Insidious: The Last Key, The Axe Murders of Villisca). They’re friendly and helpful, even if talk of buying a gun for a seven-year-old seems a bit strange to the city folk.
But as the film goes on the hinted-at darkness continues to grow as Alice begins acting stranger and it becomes obvious she has psychological issues. A scene where she literally tears pages out of a history book dealing with the treatment of Native Americans is chilling, both within the context of the story and how some states are treating history classes.
It’s always seemed odd to me that people would think “getting away from it all” would help them cope with their problems because no matter where you move to, you are still you. And that seems to be at least part of the message Manifest West is making. You have to, as the saying goes, be the change you want to see or your troubles will simply follow you.
There also seems to be a message about the inability to truly get off the grid, that society will always find you. But I’m not really seeing that as a bad thing. I’m all for keeping a leaking septic tank from contaminating the local drinking water, or CPS stepping in when kids are in a bad situation. Gibson and Dietsch use this as the catalyst to turn Manifest West into a thriller in its final act and leave it vague as to whether or not they see it as overreach.
Unfortunately as a thriller, Manifest West makes a good drama. The last act becomes a rather dull standoff between the Hayes and the police until about the last five minutes when it tries to invoke the ghost of Ruby Ridge to create a tragic ending. Instead, it just feels cynical and distasteful.
They should have simply finished the story out as a straight drama and been done with it, the film would have been better off with it. As it is, the ending won’t satisfy those who tuned in looking for a thriller and just cheapens what had been a fairly good drama. And if you’re wondering, yes, Milo and Louie are Mel’s sons.
Samuel Goldwyn Films released Manifest West in theaters and VOD and Digital platforms today, November 11th. You can check their website for more information.