As a movie, 'Rushlights' feels destined to be in some endless rotation on late-night cable television, nestled somewhere between Neil Sedaka's hawking of musical nostalgia and former Senator Fred Thompson's assurances that a reverse mortgage will help you "live a better retirement". It's the kind of movie you watch at 2 a.m., while battling a case of insomnia, and even though you know you should, or could be sleeping, the events transpiring before your bloodshot eyes are sordid and bizarrely captivating enough to keep you from catching some well-deserved winks.
Now that is in no way the fate any nascent filmmaker wants for his intellectual progeny, but it's precisely what director Antoni Stutz has with his ultra-pulpy tale of two smalltime L.A. hustlers, Billy (Josh Henderson – 'Dallas') and Sarah (Haley Webb – 'The Final Destination' and 'Teen Wolf'), looking to claim a dead girl's inheritance from a rich, but estranged relative in the middle of nowhere – i.e., a remote, backwater Texas town. Part watered-down 'Twin Peaks,' part overblown 'U Turn,' 'Rushlights' is a hyperactive pulp-noir that, like its stars, displays exceptional bone structure, but has little else to offer beyond the superficial. More to the point: Stutz and his co-writer Ashley Scott Meyers have the foundation of a very entertaining, skuzzy, pseudo-noir film at the ready, but the duo turn in a script completely devoid of subtlety or nuance that transforms the movie into a frustrating experience of ridiculously over baked dialogue, undercooked characters, and an endless supply of missed opportunities to tell a far more compelling and engaging story.
Although he takes third billing on the cover, Josh Henderson assumes the role of what would be the film's protagonist (which easily slips the character of Billy into the overused position of anti-hero). On 'Dallas,' Henderson was certainly miscast as the son of J.R. Ewing. Not only does he bear zero resemblance to the late, great Larry Hagman, but his occasionally stiff, wooden acting, combined with an irrepressibly agreeable, non-confrontational demeanor, resulted in a misfire of intent and delivery for the character that narrowed the reasons for his casting down to one thing: superb abdominal definition. That being said, it takes precisely three minutes before 'Rushlights' finds a reason for Henderson to remove his shirt.
The rest of the movie plays out in much the same fashion: the script constantly utilizes the thinnest of excuses to engage characters in unseemly activities, spinning an overly intricate web of half-baked subplots while introducing secondary characters like Edward Romero (Crispian Belfrage), the wild-eyed-drug-dealer-and-lover-of-expository-dialog who has stalked the two lovebirds from L.A. to collect on a debt owed to him by Sarah. Unlike Beau Bridges' Sheriff Robert Brogden Jr. and his younger brother Cameron (Aidan Quinn), the Romero character serves no real purpose other than to supply an unnecessary, convoluted and ham-fisted twist that intends to color the young lowlifes' motivations better, only to wind up being laughably inane thanks to Belfrage's absurd performance.
If there is a bright side to the film, it's in the performances of Bridges and Quinn; the brothers who literally are the law in town (as sheriff and lawyer, respectively), yet one of them is harboring a dark secret that ties him directly to the inheritance Billy and Sarah so desperately seek. Both men, respected, veteran actors in their own right, manage to come off convincing and commanding in their scenes – doing the kind of heavy lifting the other performers have not yet mastered – while bringing the film's only sense of intrigue and drama to the scenes they share with one another.
The intrigue stemming from the question of just what is being harbored in this standard small town U.S.A. – where everyone seems to have a dark secret – feels ubiquitous, but Stutz fails to find suitable means by which that element can provide a coherent or compelling story. A more accomplished director might have created an ominous atmosphere and better capitalized on the dichotomy of close-knit communities and the simultaneous sense of isolation inherent in some small towns. But instead of parsing his landscape for meaning or narrative value, Stutz is content to leave it untouched as a simple backdrop, just as he first introduces and then sets his characters off on a mad dash to an ending that's telegraphed from the very first meeting between Henderson and Quinn.
Throw in a quick, seedy detour into sexual perversion, infidelity, and birthright, and, again, there is the makings of a fairly decent, but wickedly dirty crime pic here. Ultimately, however, 'Rushlights' takes too many wrong turns, twisting itself unnecessarily around a dime-store-novel conceit it readily admires and desperately wishes to emulate, but never fully grasped in the first place.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Rushlights' comes from Vertical Entertainment as a single 25GB Blu-ray in the standard keepcase. There are a handful of previews included prior to the top menu, but they can all be skipped.
As with the storyline, the image on 'Rushlights' is an uneven mishmash of misguided artistic intent and botched delivery. Although the disc has a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, there are moments where, in an effort to convey the heat and desolate tract of land that make up the film's setting, Stutz and his cinematographer, Gregg Easterbrook, take things too far and bleach out nearly everything in the scene, resulting in a stark white background encasing the main characters as they chat about inheritance and tractor accidents.
Overall, the image here wavers from crisp and detailed, to overblown in a heartbeat, leaving an irregular product that's not quite stylish enough to earn praise, and yet, not poor enough to be completely avoided. There are several moments where the fine detail on display is superb, but these are typically during extreme close-ups of the character's faces. Still, there is plenty on display as skin tones are rendered evenly and details like pores, wrinkles and facial hair all wind up being distinct and clearly represented. In these moments, the more earthy color palette of the film is dialed back a notch or two, revealing several more vibrant colors, which are typically erased in exterior shots or during many of the film's extensive nighttime scenes.
It's during these moments that the fine detail and contrast levels appear to have been tinkered with – either deliberately or inadvertently, as a result of the filming technique. Either way, both elements are noticeably diminished, but not to a degree that permanently mars the overall product. Again, it's difficult to determine whether or not some portions of the image are being effected by design or lack of skill, but given the tone of the film, I'd be willing to wager it’s the former.
The audio mix is a fairly straightforward DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that plays up the actor's dialogue quite well, but manages to also throw in some decent dynamic range by spreading out other atmospheric elements, music and sound effects to great effect. For the most part, this is an extremely low budget flick (or at least it looks that way), so there isn't anything in the way of explosions or high-speed car chases to punch up the sound mix, but there are plenty of examples where distinct elements like engine noise, or the sound of an old, scratched vinyl record playing on an equally old turntable manages to sound clear and separate from everything else in the mix.
Most sound is pumped through the center and front speakers – with the majority of the dialogue coming through the center channel. Sound effects generally emanate from the front right and left, but there is some extension of sound spread out into the rear channels as well. Mostly, the rear channels handle the odd sound effect of a car or individual moving out of frame; occasionally, the rear speakers will pick up a bit of music as well. LFE is not particularly prominent in the mix, but there are a few instances where it is used to punch up certain effects, and it does so adequately.
This is primarily a workmanlike audio mix that doesn't have to deliver much beyond clear dialogue, but still manages to offer the odd flourish or two that keeps the film from sounding too flat.
With its unfocused story, tendency to zig when it should have zagged, and CW-level casting of pretty, but dubiously talented actors, 'Rushlights' almost reads like it could have been a failed pilot for said network's upcoming fall schedule. Instead, the movie turns out to be another pointless exercise in violence and criminality that has nothing original to say about either, and rarely musters up the energy to even be stylish about the whole thing. Even with a decent (but uneven) picture and good sound, this one isn't worth anyone's time. Skip it.