Night Drive, 2021.
Directed by Brad Baruh and Meghan Leon.
Starring AJ Bowen, Sophie Dalah, Scott Poythress, and Nathan Owen.
A ride share driver’s life is turned upside down after an unexpected series of misfortunes.
Almost two years after it premiered at Fantastic Fest, this deceptively ambitious low-fi thriller from directing duo Brad Baruh and Meghan Leon – best known for their work as director and editor on several Disney documentary projects – returns to the surface.
While perhaps wearing its low budget a little too obviously on its sleeve for some tastes, the expectation-defying Night Drive bounds forward with springy momentum courtesy of energetic performances from genre vet AJ Bowen and Aussie newcomer Sophie Dalah.
Russell (Bowen) is a sad sack ride-share app driver who picks up an unassuming new fare, Charlotte (Dalah). The two strike up a quick rapport as they drive towards Charlotte’s destination, though once she slips him an extra wad of cash and asks him to wait around, his life is suddenly changed forever. Charlotte ends up dragging Russell through a night of increasingly dangerous and incriminating mayhem, all of which seems to revolve around a mysterious suitcase she won’t let out of her sight.
The setup is sure to remind many viewers of Michael Mann’s terrific thriller Collateral, or perhaps more recently the middling comedic riff covering the same ground, Stuber. Baruh and Leon’s film basically splits the difference between the two movies, both narratively and tonally, delivering a black comedy-thriller which revels in the art of escalation.
The bulk of the snappy 80-minute runtime is defined by a series of stop-offs and complications to the pair’s evening, bouncing lithely from one barmy incident to the next, all while dangling the mystery of the suitcase’s contents in clear view throughout. Without spoiling the outcome, you’re not getting Pulp Fictioned here; what’s inside the suitcase is inextricably linked to the overall narrative throughline.
The filmmakers cram a frankly ridiculous amount of incident into such a short time, and while this occasionally causes it to feel contrived in how it shuttles the characters forward, it also lends the film an exhilarating, seat-of-its-pants feel. The frantic pace should also help prevent viewers from figuring out the more unexpected third act storytelling machinations, which while perhaps jarring in their genre-hopping nature, inject some dynamism into the story just when it needs it.
It’s fair to say that Baruh and Leon’s film is more functional than inspired from a directorial perspective, but they also laudably get out of the way to let their skilled leads do their thing. Working from Leon’s witty, rat-a-tat screenplay, Bowen and Dalah make for a charming odd pair – the world-weary, depressed Russell exasperated as he spends the night racing around Los Angeles with his younger, cagier passenger.
Leon’s script strikes a delicate balance between chatty comedy and grisly thriller elements, aided by Dalah’s nimble performance as the apparently harmless Charlotte, who is ultimately far better-equipped for the night’s laundry list of chaos than the frazzled wreck that is Russell. The gradual slide into outright gallows comedy becomes more apparent as the scenario continues to contort itself in stupefying ways, ahead of a more po-faced finale which feels both surprising and earned.
While it’s unlikely to stick with audiences for too long, Baruh and Leon’s film burns bright with wit and energy for as briefly as it lasts. Night Drive’s 80-minute runtime breezily zips by thanks largely to the lively performances of its well-matched leads.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.