Starring Andrew Simpson, Joséphine de La Baume, Frédéric Pierrot, Barbara Crampton
Directed by Abner Pastoll
Hitchhiker Jack (Simpson) is walking his way across rural France in a bid to return to the UK via Calais when he comes across a car swerving erratically in the road. As it pulls over, Jack witnesses what appears to be an abusive incident between the male driver and his passenger, Véronique (de La Baume).
Stepping in to save the distressed damsel, Jack finds himself with a new hiking partner. As the two get to know each other, and the early signs of a romantic attraction begin to show, they run into a local by the name of Grizard. Offering the pair a lift, Grizard stresses warnings of a serial killer who is apparently stalking these roads, and reveals that the port at Calais is currently closed due to protests and strikes.
So, the best thing to do, of course, is to accompany him to his stately country home and spend a few days in the company of him and his wife until things clear up. All sounds good, until Jack begins to get weirded out by the strange behaviour and cryptic messages of Grizard’s taciturn wife (Crampton) and her husband’s apparent penchant for anger-fueled outbursts and leading tense, pointed lines of conversation.
The first half of Road Games plays out reasonably well as a dramatic thriller, the threat of the unseen serial killer mentioned early on hanging over the proceedings in a Hitchcockian turn of suspense. Frédéric Pierrot excels as the unpredictable Grizard – he’s an eminently likeable sort, but there’s always a constant sense that there’s a darker layer there, just waiting to creep beyond the seams.
Crampton fares less well due to a script that sees her character initially relegated to being either overly sheepish, or dropping obscure verbal warnings on Jack when least expected. Her delivery is less foreboding than it is humorous, providing some unintentional chuckles at the normally impressive Crampton’s expense. She’s allowed to open up much more in the later stages where, thankfully, this more than capable actress finally shines.
Joséphine de La Baume is sultry and enigmatic as Véronique, while Andrew Simpson’s restrained turn as the fish out of water sees him restricted by a script that doesn’t offer much opportunity for range. Still, writer/director Pastoll has some fun playing with his male protagonist by giving him a mere tenuous grasp on the French language, so he’s quite often lost amongst the chatter of his surrounding characters – unaware of some of the more threatening nuances to their words and, in later stages, just what their intentions are for him.
Road Games looks fantastic with, surprisingly, the rural UK standing in admirably for the French countryside. The Grizard family home proves an elegant and visually commanding backdrop for the build-up, and Pastoll demonstrates a smart eye for composition throughout. Despite looking good and holding a pleasant Euro flavour, however, the film tends to drag during the second act, mistaking subdued drama for genuine tension.
The secrets up the film’s sleeve aren’t particularly difficult to figure out for more attentive viewers, and whilst it’s pleasing that Pastoll opts to forego the cliché of stuffing his final act with gratuitous violence, Road Games errs too often on the side of restraint, lacking a much-needed shot in the arm.
Still, it does what it needs to do and it does it with class.
Beautifully shot and backed up by an excellent, brooding score with pulsing synth elements by composer Daniel Elms, with an added shot of Carpenter Brut (who also worked similar wonders on this year’s Night Fare), Road Games is a perfectly serviceable thriller that does well with its sense of isolation and confusion – but lacks the added punch that could see it soar.