Directed by Richard Halpern
Zzyzx is a true rarity in today's indie scene. There are no zombies (either the fast or the slow variety), no moping vampires, and no gratuitous torture of gorgeous tied-up women. Instead we are treated to a rich character and dialogue driven story where no one is quite what they seem to be and the audience is kept guessing as to what's really going on right up to the final moments of the film. And it contains one of the most kick-ass opening credit sequences you're likely to see anywhere. All of this -- and more -- from a film with an approximate $1 million budget and an only nine-day shooting schedule!
If you've ever traveled to Las Vegas from Southern California on Interstate 15, then you've no doubt seen and pondered the exit sign for Zzyzx Road. Zzyzx the movie provides a brief snapshot of four individuals who decide to go down that road for vastly different reasons but wind up crossing paths with some terribly unfortunate results. Seemingly mismatched pals Lou (Johnson), an Iraqi War vet, and Ryan (Fox) are on their way to Vegas but take a detour down Zzyzx Road due to Ryan's obsession with Carl Ziller, a 1960's cult leader who ran a radio station from his desert compound located at the end of the path. (For more on the Ziller mythology, which would make a fascinating film in its own right, visit the official Zzyzx website here.)
Ryan seems nice enough, a bit slow perhaps but basically sweet; however, his fascination with Ziller and his companion Sophia causes him to do little other than sit quietly and listen over and over to Ziller's recorded transmissions on headphones. Lou, on the other hand, is a non-stop talker and obviously a loose cannon. So loose, in fact, that when he and Ryan encounter a Hispanic fellow (Zepeda) staggering down the road, Lou acts like he's going to run him over. After all, they're out in the middle of nowhere. Who would know? On Lou's second pass by the hapless man, Ryan freaks out and grabs the wheel, thereby causing Lou to hit him when in actuality he was just screwing around and had no real intention of doing so. The man dies, and the guys start to drive off in a panic but see a woman walking toward them. What to do? The trunk is full of odds and ends, so they throw the body in the backseat and cover it with a blanket. As it turns out, the woman, named Candice, is looking for her new husband, Manny, who had started walking to the highway for help after their motor home got stuck in the sand.
Either Candice (Cohen) is the world's most naïve, trusting woman or she has her own agenda because instead of continuing her search for Manny, she winds up returning to the motor home with Lou and Ryan for some beers and partying -- all the while riding in the front seat of Lou's car with Manny's corpse farting profusely from under the blanket. Once back at the motor home and with some mushrooms added into the mix along with the alcohol, things heat up sexually between Candice and Lou with Ryan, now even more brainwashed by Ziller's non-stop ramblings in his ears, desperately trying to get in on the action. Why does Candice keep visiting the bathroom every few minutes, and does she in fact know that Manny is lying dead in the back of Lou's car? What really happened to Lou over in Iraq, and will he follow through on his declaration to Ryan that Candice must join her husband in the hereafter? Will Ryan snap out of his near comatose state and come to Candice's rescue, or have his visions of Carl and Sophia left him even more dangerous than Lou?
All of these questions are answered as Zzyzx's storyline plays out to an extremely satisfactory conclusion. Flashbacks fill in most of the gaps, and flash-forwards to a Mexican family's journey down the road some time after the main events of the film complete the picture. (Be sure to keep watching through the end credits for a poignant add-on that explains things even further.) The writing/directing team of Art D'Alessandro and Richard Halpern have crafted an engaging and unique film that goes well beyond the boundaries of the typical "thriller" fans are subjected to year in and year out. Zzyzx combines all the best elements of the suspense/thriller subgenre with sharply drawn characters and a distinctive setting, resulting in one of the most enjoyable films (indie or otherwise) I've had the pleasure of watching thus far in 2007.
Which brings us to the technical aspects of Zzyzx. The sound design, editing, and cinematography are first-rate and add to the confusion and overall impending sense of dread that permeate the film. With most of the action taking place in either Lou's car or the motor home, the term "claustrophobic" just barely scratches the surface. The three main actors throw themselves into their roles and give their all, wearing the dust and blood and wounds that criss-cross their bodies by Zzyzx's end proudly. Johnson especially is noteworthy as the amped-up and maniacal, yet strangely sympathetic Lou. He also comes off as a very cool guy to hang out with in real life in his interview that's included as part of the disc's special features. Conversations with Fox, Cohen, Cassia Walton (Sophia), director Halpern, screenwriter D'Alessandro, and Phillip Halpern (Richard's brother and one of the film's producers) round out the set and range from just a couple of minutes to Johnson's lengthy in comparison 12-minute chat. Fox, aka the Brad Pitt of Albania, is particularly entertaining. In sharp contract to his character Ryan, he comes across as a hilariously deadpan smartass who no doubt livened up the set immensely.
The rest of the extras are comprised of a somewhat throwaway deleted scene, fun little homages to The Exorcist and A Clockwork Orange, a trailer that shouldn't be watched before the film as it gives away some key plot points, a weblink to some never-before-seen footage, two Easter eggs that I admit I had some trouble finding (send me an email if you're in the same boat), and a commentary with Richard Halpern and Art D'Alessandro. The commentary is so engaging and informative that not once was I tempted to skip ahead as I'm sure all of us do from time to time. Halpern discusses how Zzyzx was influenced by Alfred Hitchcock's Rope and comments on the perils of filming in the Mojave's 100+-degree temperatures. D'Alessandro explains how much more involved he was in the process than a writer usually is since he served as one of the co-producers too. All in all, the commentary is a well spent extra 80 minutes for those who enjoy the movie on its first go-round.
If, as the saying goes, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, then that goes double for Zzyzx Road. The desert hides its secrets better than any other place on the planet. One thing's for sure: The next time I'm on I-15 and pass by a certain offramp, I'm keeping my eyes forward and my foot on the gas. I highly suggest everyone reading this review do the same!
Commentary with director Richard Halpern and screenwriter/producer Art D'Alessandro
Cast and crew interviews
Visiting The Exorcist Steps with director Halpern
Homage to A Clockwork Orange
Two Easter eggs (another deleted scene and an audio change in one of the features)
3 1/2 out of 5
3 1/2 out of 5
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