There’s always at least a modicum of interest stirred up when well-known actors take a turn in the director’s chair. More often than not, these efforts find performers maxing out in the general realm of workmanlike competency, too surrounded by talent and favors to fall to hackish levels, but also rarely approaching anything of real note — for every Clint Eastwood, there are scores of Tom Hanks, Denzel Washingtons, George Clooneys, and Jodie Fosters taking uninspired spins around the directorial block. Even those who successfully make a full-time transition — the Ron Howards and Jon Favreaus of the world — typically settle into churning out author-ambivalent studio fare. Hardly quantifiable, it’s still fair to assume these high-profile multi-hyphenates’ forays into maestro mode suffer to some degree due to established personas, their comfortable positions within public perception stealthily discouraging anything that might disrupt that enviable stability. With the way the Hollywood machine works, in many ways it’s far easier for a periphery player like pre-Sicario Taylor Sheridan, absent much of a cultural footprint, to make that leap; whether you’re on board with his particular brand of hyper-masculine myth-making and libertarian propaganda, there’s no denying that his idiosyncratic voice has become its own kind of cottage industry and birthed a full-blown (and surprising, in this the age of IP worship) franchise with the Yellowstone universe. It’s tough to imagine superstars taking that risk.
All of which is to say, there’s undeniable intrigue baked into Outpost, the directorial debut of funnyman Joe Lo Truglio. An alum of The State who was most known to viewers as “oh, that guy!” in a number of aughts-era David Wain and Apatow stable comedies, before landing in the cultural consciousness proper as ultimate sycophantic beta Charles Boyle on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Truglio somewhat surprisingly forgoes comedy in favor of old-school horror with his first feature. Outpost follows Kate (Beth Dover, Truglio’s wife), a woman who has just suffered a violent assault and who relocates to the hopefully healing isolation of the wilderness, taking a position as a fire lookout. Her only physical companions here are a trio of men: her boss Earl (Ato Essandoh), who harbors his own demons regarding guilt over a past fire; Ranger Dan (Dallas Roberts), who is characterized as little more than a skeevy lech; and Reggie (Dylan Baker), a crotchety widower who is protective of the mountain and oddly fixated on getting Kate to drink some of his homemade tea.
It’s a nice setup for what could be a lot of campy fun, with the setting’s isolation and cast of creepy dudes offering something of an inverse tip of the cap to Neil LaBute’s absolutely bugnuts The Wicker Man remake. The problem is that a consistent tone is never established. On one hand, Outpost locates Kate within a vast expanse and near-complete solitude, only to see her PTSD render her claustrophobic nonetheless, which is a potentially interesting conceit to explore. But then we have the fact that Kate just keeps dropping her most essential shit — her keys in the outhouse toilet, so now she can’t leave the mountain; her phone off the side of the fire tower, so now she can’t call for help — which seems like it would have to be a joke, except it’s never clearly emphasized as such. Likewise, the vague fickleness of a character like Reggie, which allows Kate’s paranoia and distrust to ebb and flow in extreme ways, is in contrast to the overt shadiness of Ranger Dan, who is shown zooming in on pictures of Kate’s butt that he surreptitiously snapped; the essential question of Kate’s sanity leaks tension under such broad characterizations and circumstances.
Also enervating to the film’s psycho-thriller aims is Truglio’s limited bag of tricks. Kate consistently has flashbacks to her assault, which mostly result in the present with her seeing images of creepy crawlers wriggling through spilled animal viscera; these scenes, plus a bevy of phantasm-driven jump scares, constitute the entirety of the film’s fairly lazy horror inflections. And then we arrive at the film’s climax, which predictably finds Kate going full “Here’s Johnny!” mode, before Truglio hits viewers with an on-the-nose cover of Nick Lowe’s “The Beast in Me” to accompany the end credits. It’s one final moment of whiplash in a film that isn’t confident enough or competent enough to establish a lane, let alone stay in it. There’s a whole lot of derivation of other works here — which, combined with the film’s intermittent winking at them, probably helps explain its inability to fully commit to either its hammier elements or its straightforward survivalist horror — but very little to suggest a fully-formed vision from Truglio. The intent is admirable, but the performer might benefit from a controlled burn before he tries his hand at directing again.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 20.