With so much activity — politically, musically, and movie-wise — going on at SXSW now, it is easy to get lost in the crowd. There’s just so much there. Deadline’s Dino-Ray Ramos has been on the scene covering it all including openings of the hot-ticket films like opener Jordan Peele’s Us, Matthew McConaughey in Beach Bum, and Long Shot with Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron in the unlikely pairing for a new rom-com. This year’s SXSW features 131 feature films including 101 world premieres, nine North American premieres, three U.S. premieres, and 64 films from first-time filmmakers, closing on Sunday with the world premiere of Paramount’s Pet Sematary remake.
SXSW clearly loves horror, witnessed by its opening- and closing-night films, so when I got the invite to preview the latest movie from horrormeisters Blumhouse called Adopt a Highway last week at the Blumhouse offices in Los Angeles, I naturally assumed this might be in the genre as well. But this terrific and wonderfully humane little film, a first directorial effort from actor Logan Marshall Green and starring Ethan Hawke, could not be further from that type of film. It certainly keeps in the norms of the low-budget nature of Blumhouse’s output to date, but also shows it is continuing to diversify and branch out — which shouldn’t be a surprise as Jason Blum has now been nominated in the Best Picture Oscar category three times since 2012 (Whiplash, Get Out, BlacKkKlansman), with all three of those films winning at least one Oscar along the way.
With the modest but completely engaging Adopt a Highway, which had a Sunday night world premiere at SXSW, they may not have another eventual Oscar contender (even as it features another in the increasing long line of great lead performances from Hawke), but they do have a movie well worth finding a home in my opinion. It is one of many acquisition titles on display at this year’s typically quirky fest. ICM Partners and XYZ Films are sales contacts.
Hawke, currently on Broadway in True West, has been on a roll lately with a series of parts that couldn’t be more different from one another. From Maudie to Juliet Naked to Blaze to his wildly acclaimed performance in First Reformed — which made him the darling of the critics awards circuit this season but inexplicably overlooked for a Best Actor Oscar nomination — he has really hit his stride. A day after seeing Adopt a Highway I caught yet another fine turn from him in the new Western The Kid, in which he plays Pat Garrett on the hunt for Dane DeHaan’s Billy the Kid.
In Adopt a Highway he is virtually never off screen in a tight, less than 80 minute character study of a man named Russell Millings, just released after 20 years in prison because of a third-strike conviction for possessing some weed. He is an example of a guy who tragically got lost in the system, and when he is out finds a world he doesn’t recognize, a guy who has never been online and doesn’t have a clue how to send an email. His lack of preparation for coming into the world is a real condemnation of the justice and penal systems, but this isn’t a film that tries to drive that into your head. Instead, he sets out to find his way back, like someone who has just landed on a planet and has no connection whatsoever. He does get a dishwashing job, and one day discovers a live baby in a dumpster in the back of his workplace. Finding another living soul who has seemingly been tossed away, he takes the baby (who has a note attached saying “My name was Ella”) and tries to care for it rather than telling authorities. Obviously, complications ensue and the film goes on from there as he hits the road, has other encounters, and finally finds himself on his own highway to a new life.
With echoes of the John Wayne film Three Godfathers, and a later incarnation Three Men and a Baby, this movie almost plays like a fable or fantasy as it is hard to believe someone could be as disconnected from society as Russell is even after two decades in the pen, but in Hawke’s hands it is wonderfully real and represents another triumph for one of our best actors. Hopefully someone picks it up. For Marshall-Green, it is an encouraging debut behind the camera.
Continuing on the “highway” theme, Netflix debuted its latest movie of the week, The Highwaymen, also last night at SXSW. I had the opportunity to see this one at a screening a few weeks ago and it also is well worth checking out. It will have limited theatrical play beginning Friday, and debuts on the streamer March 29 when I will do a formal video review of it. Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson play two Texas Rangers on the trail of Bonnie and Clyde in sort of a reversal of Warren Beatty’s 1967 classic.
After many failed attempts by the FBI and others, they were the ones who did it and nailed the notorious outlaw pair. Watching these two veteran stars teamed for the first time in this long-gestating screenplay by John Fusco is reason enough to seek this out, but director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) has also steered the true story of Frank Hamer and Maney Gault into a natural vehicle that fits the respective talents of Costner and Harrelson to a tee.
The interesting thing, as Hancock told me at a reception before the Netflix screening I attended, was that he has been attached to this project for many years — even going back to the original stars that were going to do it, Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Those two iconic names had been looking for something to do together since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, and finally after decades of searching the tale of Hamer and Gault was thought to possibly be it. It would have been interesting to see them do something on the other side of the law for a change, and it’s the Newman-Redford movie that got away. The reteaming of the pair never would happen: Newman died in 2008. But now finally we have The Highwaymen and Costner and Harrelson fit the bill nicely.
Led by finally putting up the funds to finish Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind 42 years after it was in production, and funding movies like Martin Scorsese’s long-in-the-works The Irishman, and now bringing The Highwaymen to life, Netflix certainly seems to be the clean up hitter, cinematically speaking. And that’s a very good thing indeed.