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Drifter, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Fine, Low-Key Thriller"
3 stars

Don't go in expecting much, and you'll likely have a perfectly good time.

Despite its derivativeness and a disappointing final plot twist, The Drifter is a fairly impressive feature-film debut from writer/director Richard Brand, whose meager resume consists of television writing credits for one episode each of The Fall Guy and Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. Not exactly the kind of background expected of one who's managed to churn out a not-bad thriller with a decent amount of entertainment value. In this Roger Corman-executive-produced low-budget production, the lovely Kim Delaney stars as Julia Robbins, a women's-fashion designer driving home to Los Angeles from a business event in San Francisco when she gets a flat tire; offering to change it is an attractive long-haired hitchhiking hunk, Trey (Miles O'Keefe), who she agrees to give a ride to afterward. They wind up spending a torrid night at a motel, and the next day she drops him off in L.A.; he wants to see her again but she politely declines, and as she's driving away we see that Trey's managed to pickpocket the one-hundred-year-old pocket watch Julia's grandfather had given her. Was his romantic overture genuine or just a manipulative ploy? Julia's in a relationship with a criminal defense attorney, Arthur (Timothy Bottoms), though it's not a completely rosy one: she knows about his infidelities, and has just committed her first one for revenge sake, though she keeps this from him. (Delaney, a fresh presence on the screen, may not be extraordinary gifted, but she lucidly conveys the train of thought. We understand why Julia doesn't see fit to rub her cheating lover's nose in it.) She starts getting mysterious phone calls at home, with the caller staying mute; and at work she's surprised when Trey calls, even though she never gave him her office number. His phone calls persist, and she agrees to meet with him in a public place to set things straight, and is unprepared for his plea, "We're connected, Julia. When you make love with someone, it's a 'forever' thing." And, in a role-reversal turn, he's brought up short by her bluntness, "We didn't make love -- we fucked." O'Keefe, who played the title character in the Bo Derek atrocity Tarzan the Ape Man, looks like the ultimate GQ model without a strand of moussed hair out of place, and his woodenness as an actor both robs the character of internal tension and suggestions of menace -- he's impassive to the point of inertia. Still, he's devoid of smugness and stays in (limited) character throughout.

It wouldn't be surprising if Brand had modeled this compact, no-frills movie after the made-for-cable-TV series The Hitchhiker, which served up nastily enjoyable sex-and-violence-filled mystery-thrillers, with the character of the Hitchhiker introducing and closing the episodes. The Drifter is slight but satisfying, lurid but well-controlled; like The Hitchhiker, it's probably best appreciated late in the evening when you're not quite as sharp on the take, not quite so demanding as to whether all of the story adds up. We're never given a plausible explanation (or any explanation, for that matter) as to how Trey is privy to Julia's home-and-work phone numbers and addresses, how he's able to get around a city as sizeable as Los Angeles without any apparent transportation and with crackerjack preciseness; he's always conveniently showing up where need be just so the plot can progress, which is a bit of a cheat, and something of a detriment in that it's difficult to take the movie serious even on an undemanding level when we're not being played fair with. (Even B-movies need a degree or two of gravitas.) And Brand should probably have his wrists slapped for the mechanical use of the character of Matty (affecting Anna Gray Garduno), Julia's best friend, who comes to a particularly gruesome demise -- when early on she tells Julia she's pregnant, a mental alarm goes off, and we just know she's a goner. But the movie is usually ahead of us by a scene or two, and with some interesting additional characters mixed into the broth and making strong impressions -- Arthur's guilty-as-sin murderous client, Willie (focused Loren Haynes); seedy private detective Kriger (insinuatingly creepy Al Shannon); police detective Morrison (solidly played by Brand himself) -- we're never exactly sure where the story is heading. Not nearly as exploitive as it might have been and boasting uncommonly decent dialogue (though I still can't make heads or tails of Julia telling Trey before they bed down, "No words. If there are any words, it'll be like it never happened"), The Drifter moves confidently along with the kind of streamlined narrative assurance countless major-studio movies have abandoned. Yes, the ending is contrived and protracted (though it is contextually logical), but it's arrived at through Stephen Mark's deft editing, and with cinematographer David Sperling's and composer Rick Conrad's fine efforts there's always enough atmosphere to go around. The movie is enjoyable fluff.

Not yet available on DVD, though I'm sure it would be had the format been in widespread use when Delaney was enticing TV viewers on a weekly basis when "NYPD Blue" was on the air.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=25479&reviewer=327
originally posted: 07/13/13 22:18:24
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USA
  03-Jun-1988 (R)

UK
  N/A

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  Larry Brand

Written by
  Larry Brand

Cast
  Kim Delaney
  Timothy Bottoms
  Al Shannon
  Miles O'Keeffe



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