What I find most impressive about 'Scenic Route,' from sibling filmmakers Kevin and Michael Goetz (making their big-screen debut), is the fact that the filmmakers sustain a decent level of entertainment in a tale about being stranded in the desert and how it all goes terribly, terribly wrong. That alone is a feat worth admiring and is probably reason enough to recommend it, demonstrating what can be accomplished on a limited budget when you have a good story from the start and excellent performances to bring it to life. That the Goetz brothers actually turn this very simple plot into a gripping psychological thriller with meaning is basically icing on the cake.
We start with brief flashes of two men brutally beating each other to bloody pulps by a desert road until the rubber end of a metal crutch slams into the camera lens. Moments later, we see childhood friends, Mitchell (Josh Duhamel) and Carter (Dan Fogler), driving on the same desert road when the pickup truck suddenly dies on them. Immediately, there's a swell of tension and suspense because we already what this friendship will soon degenerate into. It's only a matter of time before things go from horribly unlucky to tragically worse — someone, if not both, will soon be dead. It's a great little tactic for the filmmakers to take because they don't have to work much at keeping viewers engaged. We want to see how these seemingly close friends end up at each other's throats.
In this day and age, it's rather difficult to imagine anyone being lost anywhere for too long thanks to our handy little mobile devices, but the filmmakers throw in that always convenient excuse of poor signal connection and roaming issues. A bit too fitting perhaps, maybe even cliché, but it works for the story as a likely possibility for delaying the inevitable rescue from malnutrition and thirst. What I liked particularly best is the several missed opportunities of salvation, those moments when a car happens to be driving by and the guys manage to mishandle the situation. If they're not scaring a little old lady while Duhamel sports a poorly-done Mohawk, a tow truck comes to haul away the broken-down truck just when the two friends finally build up the courage to walk across the desert. And other such chances to end the nightmare only prolong it.
As the two friends endure their terrifying ordeal, there exists as well an inner demon ready for Mitchell and Carter to confront, a deeper, more problematic wedge that had been brewing long before the start of the story, written by Kyle Killen ('The Beaver'). Why they are traveling together on the road when they have being slowly drifting apart over the years is a bit of a mystery, but what matters is that the pair are here now and their situation is an opportune time to discuss were things went wrong. Sadly, their first night and day alone was very rough, full of harsh truths and realities, and it only escalates into a horrible calamity. Amid Mitchell and Carter's struggle for survival, Killen schemes a larger dramatic whole that has both characters face how their adult lives compare to the dreams and goals they envisioned when younger.
Not only do the Goetz brothers deliver an entertaining psychological thriller, but they also provide a harrowing journey of self-discovery, one where having a best friend along for the ride makes a world difference. The truck breaking down in the middle of the desert is essentially a metaphor for the breakdown of their lifelong friendship, to get all grimy and dirty up to their elbows in order to fix it, which they definitely do. An unexpected twist is left open for interpretation. It's a thoughtful and provocative finish with sentiments that many can relate to, making the 'Scenic Route' a surprisingly enjoyable ride through some unfamiliar territory.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Vertical Entertainment brings 'Scenic Route' to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD25 disc inside a regular blue case. At startup, viewers can skip a couple trailers before switching to a silent, static main menu.
'Scenic Route' breaks down in the middle of Blu-ray with a highly-detailed, near-reference 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Shot on a combination of Arri Alexa and Red Epic HD cameras, the freshly-minted transfer displays extraordinary definition and sharp clarity of the landscape. Individual rocks and pebbles are distinct, and dirt covers the broken pickup truck like a warm blanket. You can plainly make out the difference between blood and sweat on the clothes of the two characters, every bruise and injury is visible at all times, and facial complexions show incredible lifelike textures.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the high-def video comes with brilliant, crisp contrast which perfectly captures the feel of scorching desert heat. The stunning cinematography of Sean O'Dea is overall spectacular, seamlessly balancing the sizzling whites throughout with an array of vibrant, lush colors. Primaries are practically radiant while secondary hues pop off the screen with rich saturation yet never feeling exaggerated. Black levels are deep and penetrating with excellent detailing in the darkest portions of the image. Only minor drawback is some very light posterization in the sky, but other than that, the film looks fantastic on Blu-ray.
As far as the audio goes, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack really feels a lot like a missed opportunity. I'm referring more to the design than the codec itself. And while I'm not accustomed to overtly disapprove of such things, especially when the track is faithful to the original intentions, I must say that it actually hurts the overall presentation and to some degree the film's entertainment value. The majority of the story takes place in the open desert, the two characters completely surrounded by natural wildlife, yet rear activity is sorely lacking. Even when the wind is blowing hardest, the back speakers are practically dead. There is not a moment of envelopment to be had, and it's sadly noticeable. The music doesn't even bleed in the lightest to the sides.
Granted, maybe the filmmakers intentionally wanted the focus in the front soundstage where vocals are highly-detailed and precise, but it also makes the movie largely feel inert. The mid-range is for the most part clean, but also very narrow and limited, as if producers decided to simply go with whatever sounds the boom mic picked up and call it a day. The whole thing sound lifeless and dull, which arguably complements the story, but when it suddenly bursts with emotion, the quality remains the same — the soundfield never opens up. There is some low bass to be had here and there, but nothing that impresses in any significant way, making the whole lossless mix rather average and a bit boring.
Making their big screen debut, the Goetz brothers surprise with a seemingly simple story that quickly turns into twisted, nightmarish battle for survival. Starring Josh Duhamel and Dan Fogler, two childhood friends confront the elements together along with the wedge the drifted them apart. The Blu-ray arrives with an excellent video transfer, an average somewhat lacking audio presentation, and only one supplement. All in all, the film makes for a great rental.