Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 05/25/06 13:08:59

"These guys know what they're doing. Taut, intense stuff."
5 stars (Awesome)

Without the Internet, "Zzyzx" might languish unseen. But now you can download it for three bucks from the official website. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

Zzyzx Road is a four-and-a-half-mile stretch of sand and asphalt in the Mojave Desert. People usually encounter the famous exit sign on the way to Las Vegas. The road leads to nothing more exotic than a mostly abandoned settlement (also named Zzyzx), though it hasn't stopped scores of travellers from wondering what Zzyzx (it rhymes with Isaac's) is or where the road will take them. Zzyzx, a low-budget indie thriller (not to be confused with the crappy Tom Sizemore movie Zyzzyx Road that literally only made $30), theorizes that it's a real end-of-the-alphabet place -- a place where people take leave of their senses and are reduced to the noir basics of greed, desperation, and murderous intent.

Two guys -- macho jerk Lou (Kenny Johnson of TV's The Shield), a Gulf War vet, and his travel companion Ryan (Ryan Fox), a wimpy computer-store clerk -- are taking the time-honored road trip to Vegas. Ryan's seen mysterious stuff on the web about Zzyzx -- something about a Manson-like cult, skeletons found stacked on top of each other. It sounds like a freaky place to stop along the way. Goofing around behind the wheel to intimidate his skittish passenger, Lou accidentally runs over a Native American guy stumbling along the road. What will the guys do with the body? Especially when the dead man's young newlywed (Robyn Cohen, from The Life Aquatic) shows up looking for him?

Zzyzx is not a terribly original thriller; its influences are obvious, from A Clockwork Orange (referenced in dialogue and in a hallucination) to Lodge Kerrigan's Clean, Shaven (the constant crackle of half-heard radio on the soundtrack) to your choice of desert-baked tales of evil (Red Rock West, The Hills Have Eyes). As I've said many times before, noir movies like this would only be surprising if the characters were all exactly as they seemed; as usual, those we take to be evil may not be so bad, those we presume innocent perhaps not so flawless.

The difference, as always, is in the execution, and director Richard Halpern -- aided by a fluidly conversational script by Art D'Alessandro -- frames Zzyzx as a jittery, sweaty exercise in paranoia fuelled by blood, drugs, and just plain fear. The small cast is beyond reproach, creating a realistic spine for the action, and one of the performances inspires hatred the same way Edward Norton's famous turn in Primal Fear does -- you feel betrayed, played. You believe in the situation, and the detail that this road brings out strange behavior in people covers any potential implausibilities. (Also, you look at this bleached, godforsaken place and you have no trouble buying that otherwise sane people might lose it here.) Zzyzx is a harsh, bitter and sometimes grotesque thriller; it has no MPAA rating, but I'm guessing we're looking at a hard R here, especially during the denouement, when every available thread of clothing is doused with -- as the Clockwork-referencing guys might say -- red red krovvy.

Where can you see Zzyzx? If you don't live near a festival that happens to be showing it, Richard Halpern has taken advantage of the pay-and-play capabilities of the web by making the entire film available for a mere $2.99 on the official website. [NOTE: The film is now available on DVD as well.] The goal, apparently, is to spread the word and make a bit of money back. As an inveterate supporter of indie film, I anted up, fired it up on my iTunes, and found it to be the best three bucks I've spent in a while. In a time when filmmakers are circumventing traditional methods of distribution -- Steven Soderbergh's film Bubble debuted in theaters, on cable, and on DVD the same week -- finely crafted exercises like Zzyzx, which you otherwise wouldn't have seen or heard of, have more of a fighting chance than they would've ten years ago. In this case, the mode of delivery isn't all that sets the film apart; it would play just as well for a theater audience.

"Zzyzx" is a good little film of the sort that Hollywood should be making but isn't, and since exhibitors don't even pretend to be interested in such films anymore, maybe the future of indie film does lie on the information superhighway.

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