Shot on location in New Mexico in early 2021, Pete Ohs’ Jethica is a kind of minimalist sunbaked noir that gradually transforms into something altogether more unnerving. Written in a workshop collaboration with the film’s cast, Jethica takes on some of the qualities of an old exquisite corpse game, each scene flowing naturally from the previous one even if, by the end, one isn’t entirely sure how they got from point A to point B to point D. If it’s not entirely satisfying as a traditional narrative, there’s an “anything goes” quality to the storytelling that infuses the proceedings with an electric energy. The film begins with Elena (Callie Hernandez) fucking someone in the back of their car. After finishing up, her lover (only heard from off-screen, never shown) begins asking her personal questions. Cagey at first, Elena decided to regale him with a tale about the time she killed someone while hiding out at her grandmother’s home in New Mexico. The narrative proper, then, is in fact a long flashback, as Callie describes running into an old friend, Jessica (Ashley Denise Robinson) at a gas station. The two haven’t seen each other since high school, so Callie invites her to her home to catch up over a cup of coffee. Jessica is clearly distressed about something, but reluctantly accepts the invitation. It’s over the course of their chat that Jessica reveals that she had been living in LA, but fled to get away from a particularly incessant stalker. Jessica shows Callie a pile of disturbing letters and numerous unsolicited cell phone videos sent to her by Kevin (Will Madden), a lanky, balding hipster douchebag who is obviously mentally disturbed.
These early scenes are infused with a palpable sense of creeping dread, as Ohs (acting as his own cinematographer) films his characters in suffocating close-ups or flattened against the vast desert landscape. They are surrounded by dusty, barren terrain as far as the eye can see, a desolate space for this peculiar psychodrama to play out upon. Interior scenes are barely lit, shrouding faces in darkness as John Bower’s eerie, drone-heavy score lingers over the soundtrack. Callie invites Jessica to stay with her for a while and try to clear her head. The next day, as the pair walk around an old ruins site (another location that becomes a physical representation of a psychological state), Callie spots an odd man approaching them. They return home, only for the man to follow them there. Based on Jessica’s description, Callie guesses that this is Kevin, but Jessica insists that it’s just some stranger. As the man repeatedly calls out Jessica’s name, Callie seems certain that this is in fact Kevin. Jessica continues to refuse to believe that Kevin could have possibly tracked her down here, and shows Callie something in the trunk of her car to prove her point. It’s here that the film takes a pronounced supernatural turn, as Callie and Jessica finally agree that Kevin is here, somehow, and must now figure out how to rid themselves of him permanently.
As a portrait of insane male entitlement run amok, Jethica is profoundly disturbing. But curiously, as the film progresses, any sense of real danger is gradually replaced by a kind of pitch-black gallows humor. There’s a sense here, bolstered by the film’s unconventional production process, that everyone is just making this up as they go along. Clocking in at barely 70 minutes, Jethica can feel at times like a sketch or a rough draft of a more polished film, but it’s also that same quirky sensibility that makes it so invigorating. If it doesn’t stick the landing exactly (and of course, your mileage may vary), it’s so interesting to watch the cast and crew stitch this odd work together that you might not mind. It would be a stretch to call this Rivette-ian, but Jethica nonetheless joins a fascinating cohort of contemporary indies like Slow Machine, Black Bear, & Italian Studies that are interested in playing with narrative conventions, contorting the standard story beats into peculiar shapes and twisty curlicues. Critique-free films are overrated — more fearless movies like these, please.
Published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 3.