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“He Went That Way” reviewed

The foundations of He Went That Way would appear to promise a movie with curiosity, tension, volatility and perhaps even the kind of improbable bonding that can grow out of Stockholm syndrome. Putting a celebrity animal trainer, a serial killer and a chimp together in a station wagon headed across Route 66 in the turbulent mid-’60s at the very least suggests something with edge and compelling strangeness. Which makes it disappointing to report that despite the best efforts of co-stars Jacob Elordi and Zachary Quinto, this ineffectual true-crime road trip is entirely lacking in danger.

The film was made by Jeffrey Darling, a respected Australian industry veteran acclaimed for his work as a cinematographer, a music video director (for Crowded House) and, most notably, as a maker of award-winning international commercials for some of the world’s biggest brands. In March 2022, his body was pulled from the ocean by lifeguards on the North Sydney beach where he had been surfing; paramedics were unable to revive him.

No critic enjoys beating up on a first feature, least of all one whose director died shortly after completing principal photography and never got to see the finished film. Perhaps Darling’s involvement in post-production might have helped shape something less toothless out of the material, though given Evan M. Wiener’s dud script, that seems doubtful.

The story was inspired by a real-life encounter in which animal trainer Dave Pitts, while traveling across the country with his performing chimpanzee Spanky, picked up hitchhiker Larry Lee Ranes and soon became aware that he was sharing the front seat with a serial killer. The end credits show interview footage of Pitts recalling the experience, along with a black-and-white newsreel clip of Spanky doing a skating routine in The Ice Capades.

A disclaimer points out that He Went That Way — a generic title that means nothing in this context — is neither a documentary nor a biographical portrait, not intended to accurately portray any character or situation depicted in the drama. And yet by slapping the words “This (mostly) really happened” across the opening, the filmmakers clearly want to have it both ways.

Wiener based his script on Pitts’ account and on Conrad Hilberry’s book Luke Karamazov, a fictionalized retelling of the separate murderous sprees of Ranes and his younger brother Danny. But that’s at least one “inspired by” layer too many to give this “stranger than fiction” tale much plausibility. Instead, it plays like a tonally uncertain blend of desert neo-noir, prickly buddy movie, misfit character study and crime thriller, with zero psychological grounding and even less suspense. There’s also a homoerotic undercurrent that may or may not be intended, but either way, yields nothing of interest.

Setting the time as summer 1964, the voiceover narration plastered over the opening informs us that storytelling makes us human and freedom is a crap-shoot when you live your life on the road, warning us not to be too sure we have it all figured out, because it’s complicated. But that platitudinous jumble seems like an afterthought, an attempt to add thematic complexity to an American crime footnote rendered perplexingly dull.

Elordi plays the Ranes character, renamed Bobby, who’s first seen cruising along a dusty stretch of highway, chatting away to a man slumped in the passenger seat with a bullet hole in his head. As Bobby dumps the body, the narrator guides us back to Death Valley, California, a few weeks earlier.

Quinto plays animal trainer Jim, who notices lanky young Bobby attempting to thumb a ride when he pulls over at an isolated gas station with car trouble. All we know of Jim at this point is that he’s fastidiously groomed, slightly uptight and numb to the kvetching of his wife back home. So when he offers a lift to the archetypal shady drifter, dressed in regulation faded denim and white T-shirt, the first assumption is sexual attraction. But that would be another movie.

Jim’s ultimate destination is Chicago, where he has a “private engagement” booked for Spanky, whose declining popularity has made it hard to get gigs. He agrees to drive Bobby all the way, with the drifter then intending to hitch a ride to Milwaukee to reunite with his girlfriend. The ostensible tension is built around whether hot-tempered Bobby will kill Jim, or whether the kindly, nurturing older man will tap into a residual humanity beneath the psychopath’s posturing nihilism.

Despite brief allusions to Bobby’s upbringing in an abusive home, and occasional flashbacks to his point-blank kills, Elordi mostly suggests a wannabe James Dean poseur, even before Jim uses that comparison to help endear him to a pair of Tulsa sisters (Alexandra and Nicolette Doke). And while Jim takes swigs from a Pepto Bismol bottle, there’s never much sense of anxiety or fear in Quinto’s performance. Instead, Jim seems perversely masochistic in his willingness to relax back into road-trip companionship with Bobby after each violent outburst.

As for Spanky, the combination of animatronics, puppetry and a costumed actor looks not much more convincing than the 1968 Planet of the Apes cast, making the chimp a distraction, rather than his intended function as a test of friendship and trust, mirroring the shifting rapport between Jim and Bobby. He Went That Way looks slick enough, with some handsome vistas like the night sky tinged by the neon of an Albuquerque motel. (Southern California locations stand in for various points across the map.) And Elordi offers a preview of loose-limbed moves that might be a rehearsal for his role as Elvis in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla. But this is a movie that drags when it should simmer.