Oftentimes, a really good movie is described as a “rollercoaster ride.” I can say that figuratively and literally about Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet.
Adapted from a King e-book, and written and directed by Mick Garris, “riding the bullet” refers to many things: A monolithic rollercoaster in Maine called The Bullet; biting the bullet and making a life or death decision; the bullet one could use for suicide; and the cars that bullet down a lonely stretch of dark road.
Sixties college student Alan Parker (Jonathan Jackson) just needs a ride. He has to get to the hospital to visit his mother (Barbara Hershey), who’s suffered a sudden stroke. I imagine the ideal pick-up for a hitchhiker that age would be someone who can drive well, doesn’t talk much, and is preferably a beautiful woman. In Riding the Bullet, Alan’s rides are just the opposite. He first encounters a dope-smoking hippie (Nicky Katt) who can scarcely keep control of his van; then a creepy old man (Cliff Robertson) who is so obsessed with his crotch and the memory of his dead wife, he can barely keep his eyes on the road; and an eerily intuitive thrill-seeker (David Arquette) who drives his devil-red ’58 Plymouth Fury at dangerously high speeds.
When Alan isn’t riding, he’s walking. It makes sense that Garris’s adaptation of the story is changed from present-day to the 1960s, because seriously, Alan must be on a bad trip. Along the way he encounters a snarling, “Cujo” dog; “Sometimes They Come Back” bullies; his own “Secret Window” doppelganger; and a “Carrie” style cemetery. But you needn’t be a King fan to enjoy all the spooky little nuances, because Garris makes Riding the Bullet his very own. It’s a nifty standalone supernatural drama that features some truly terrifying scenarios, while also offering up a bit of well-placed humor and poignancy.
From top to bottom, the casting is beyond reproach. Jackson is wholly believable as the artistic young man who is haunted by the underlying ghosts of niggling fears and regrets from his past. Arquette, who’s usually a sore-thumb oddball in his roles, slips into the insidiously eerie character who trolls for souls along the cemetery’s byway. Hershey runs the gamut of what a mom is, and Robertson makes a lasting impression as the wistful and pensive elderly person we’ve all met. The incidental characters are all memorable and there is even a director’s cameo, which is always fun.
The cinematography of Robert C. New is crisp and effective; we aren’t made to view the 60s through rose-colored glasses, and while the night scenes are dark and misty, you can see everything you need to see. The soundtrack is stellar, and particularly effective with the use of period songs by the original artists like The Chamber Brothers’ Time Has Come Today, and The Youngbloods’ Get Together.
Bullet beats the tar out of all the big-budget would-be horror blockbusters of 2004 (The Village, Alien Vs. Predator, Exorcist: The Beginning, et al) and it even stands, er, head and shoulders above some its good indie contemporaries (Open Water, Vlad, Saw). It’s one of the best rides — rollercoasters aside — of the year.
Although the movie is only starting out in limited release, here’s hoping for #1 with a bullet.