4 out of 5
Directed by: Christophe Deroo
This is a very sparse idea, presented very well. Lately, in a world of streaming series and 2.5 hour average-length blockbusters, it’s refreshing when the makers of a movie recognize that what they have only needs to be, say, 75 minutes. Of course, you can look at that equally cynically, and wonder what a film is lacking that prevents it from meeting the 90 minute minimum norm, but Christophe Deroo’s Sam Was Here had some early indications that that wouldn’t be the case: it takes its time getting to its title; it fully establishes its mood and color palette without any rushes of editing or invasive music. The confident, slow approach suggests that Deroo had a plan for those 75 minutes, and wouldn’t just be smashing scenes together until it was long enough to yell ‘cut.’
Sam (Rusty Joiner) is driving. He’s stopping at mobile homes in a desolate land, briefcase in hand, knocking on doors that aren’t answered, to the extent that the noise of a television is ceased as though the occupant is hiding. He’s dressed like the frazzled businessman – rumpled white shirt, askew tie – and places a call to his boss (also unanswered), questioning this decision to try to sell to this apparently very, very empty market. The sense of isolation is complete, while the movie is given that bump into thriller / horror via the signs of life that haunt the corners: video cameras still working; coffee in an empty motel still brewing. Sam treks from location to location, stopping to call his wife and say hi to ‘the little one’; a call, of course, also unanswered, but he apologizes, on an answering machine, for an incident that possibly justifies that. Sam leaves little handwritten cards with the movie’s title at places he departs.
On the radio, there’s somewhat surreal chatter about a killer that the police are chasing. The setting is (initially) non-descript, although Sam is using a pager, and his calls are on landlines.
And then the tire trap across the road. And then we see gunsights centered on Sam.
While there’s enough here to draw conclusions about what’s probably / might be happening soon enough, as well as where the story will, again, probably lead, Deroo paces things well to allow Joiner – always on screen, carrying the entire flick – to rather reasonably evolve from curiosity to fear to anger throughout, and the film shifts through exciting confrontations and well-shot (and interestingly dressed) setpieces. The film’s likely low budget is never a hindrance: creativity is used with a combination of artistry to get the point across immensely well.
Seeing as how it’s a one-character movie, there’s not too much of a reliance on dialogue, and when Joiner is given more to say, he does his best with it, but it’s unfortunately rather cliche. There are also a couple of odd transitions between the nothingness of the surroundings and sudden somethingness of a car lot, or a shop, as well as what I felt was an unfortunate choice to put a date on a newspaper – 1998 – which sucks out some of the groovy surreality. But the way Sam Was Here manages to effectively revitalize some horror tropes into something gripping, and visually compelling, makes those truly minor gripes.