‘The Driftless Area’: Small-Town Crooks in a Midwestern Bermuda Triangle

April 28, 2015 Updated: April 30, 2015

NEW YORK—Girl gives a boy a lucky rock. Boy buys her a rose in return. The plant nursery makes him buy the whole tiny rosebush, and delivers it on a giant forklift. His car breaks down, stranding him roadside, bush in hand.

A small-time criminal picks up the boy hitchhiking, charges $20 for a one-mile ride, kicks him out, and steals his rosebush.

Stranded, the boy wings a rock at the truck in anger. He beans the bad man by mistake. (It was his new, lucky rock.) Knocked out cold, the man runs the truck into a roadside ditch. Boy finds bag in cab, with $77,000 in cash.

It’s a mildly funny opening scene. Kind of like that high school study-hall group of kids you might have known who had that under-the-radar, subversive sense of humor, and made jokes with long fuses, incorporating logical outcomes, that you’d only get 10 minutes later.

We see Stella spotlighted in dark fields sometimes, in a nightgown, looking pale, wan, and a tiny bit charred.

“The Driftless Area,” which premiered at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, is filled with such mild humor, and meaning, or attempted meaning. It’s mildly fun for a minute. Other than that, “The Driftless Area” will drift your mind—to things like doing laundry.

Pierre Hunter (Anton Yelchin), is a red jacket-wearing, bow-tied, 24-year-old bartender in a small town. He tried to get out, but his parents died, so he came back to the geographic “Driftless Area” of his youth, which is somewhere Wisconsin-y or Minnesota-ish.

Apparently glaciers didn’t go through there, so there’s no drift, which is what silt, clay, sand, gravel, and boulders are called. So the area is therefore driftless. That’s very interesting. To geologists.

Soon, we meet the odd Stella (Zooey Deschanel), who might just be a reincarnated person who survived a local arson. We see her spotlighted in dark fields sometimes, in a nightgown, looking pale, wan, and a tiny bit charred.

Anton Yelchin as "Pierre" and Zooey Deschanel as "Stella" in "The Driftless Area." (Bron studios)
Anton Yelchin as Pierre and Zooey Deschanel as Stella in “The Driftless Area.” (Bron Studios)

Even if she’s a possible ghost, she’s still with us, due, maybe, to the town hermit, Tim Geer (Frank Langella), who nurses her back to health with a prescription of 5-pound dumbbell curls, multivitamins, and counseling that sounds compliments of EST and The Landmark Forum. He speaks of “her story” and such.

Maybe this Tim is a shaman assisting wandering ghosts in need of closure.

Stella and young Pierre evolve an attraction when she rescues him, after he falls down a well in a field and hunkers in the mud for a night.

But Shane, the self-same bush-stealing, truck-driving man (John Hawkes), wants his money back. T’was he, who, as minion to small-time crystal-meth crook Ned (Ciarán Hinds), was ordered to burn down that house with Stella in it. Shane did not know at the time she was in it.

John Hawkes as small-time criminal "Shane" in "The Driftless Area" (Bron Studios)
John Hawkes as small-time criminal Shane in “The Driftless Area.” (Bron Studios)

A paltry plot. And while it’s supposed to be about destiny, chance, coincidence, and connectivity, it feels forced—and worse, it causes one’s mind, as mentioned, to drift toward thoughts of dinner rather than the interconnectivity of the cosmic law of the universe. It lacks vim and vigor.

Pierre is a strange young man with no vim. He’s got the guts, clearly, to steal a bag of money that’s got “bad idea” written all over it, and doesn’t seem to care about criminals coming after him, but he’s still content to bartend his life away in a tiny town.

The cast’s got no chemistry, and the above-mentioned study-hall humor loses its charm fast.

The promise of insights into the nature of the universe, or the possibility that this Midwestern driftless area could, in fact, be some sort of land-locked version of the Bermuda Triangle, where things disappear and reappear in a time warp, leads to an unsatisfactory resolution.

In retrospect we think, yes, perhaps this driftless area might be a purgatory metaphor where souls drift about in the space of the universe, and maybe this Tim is a shaman assisting wandering ghosts in need of closure. But we just can’t know for sure; it’s all quite vague. But here’s a logical conclusion: If souls there drift in and out of the Minnesotean time-space continuum, shouldn’t the movie be called “The Drifting Area”?

Right toward the end, there’s a sequence where it dawns on you that the two leads all of a sudden have more vim. They’re talking slightly more vigorously, and they’re slightly more realistic and in focus. Slightly, but unquestionably so. And so it might be the case that the entire tale was all Pierre’s … dream?

The whole film might be an M. Night Shyamalan’s “I see dead people” type of situation à la “The Sixth Sense.”

There is only one way to find out. Go see if you can figure it out. Then again, maybe do laundry and take a nap, because you might dream of insights into the mysteries of the cosmos—which would definitely be more interesting than the mystery of “The Driftless Area.”

‘The Driftless Area’
Director: Zachary Sluser
Starring: Anton Yelchin, Zooey Deschanel, John Hawkes, Alia Shawkat, Aubrey Plaza, Frank Langella, Ciarán Hinds
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Release date: April 18
No rating
2 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch