Welcome to Willits (2017)
Deep in the Northern California woods, in the heart of the notorious Emerald Triangle, lies a remote cabin. The residents struggle to fight off the repeated attacks and abductions by mysterious creatures that have plagued them for years. When a local pot farmer is caught up with a wayward group of campers the situation quickly escalates into total carnage.
September 22, 2017
Bill Sage, Chris Zylka, Anastasia Baranova, Sabina Gadecki, Rory Culkin, Dolph Lundgren
C’mon, IFC Midnight. After distributing The Devil’s Candy, Antibirth, A Dark Song. You’re much, much better than Welcome to Willits. This movie is directed by Trevor Ryan, based on his fourteen minute short film from 2013. It stars Bill Sage, Chris Zylka, Anastasia Baranova, Dolph Lundgren, Sabina Gadecki, and Rory Culkin. It’s set in the “Emerald Triangle” of the Northern California woods. Marijuana country. It’s about a redneck farmer and a bunch of teenage campers who encounter space aliens, or maybe it’s a hallucination. It’s eighty-two minutes long, and it feels like you’re watching the Alan Smithee edit of Dune.
Brock, (Bill Sage), is damaged goods. He grows pot in the woods, is addicted to meth, and he claims he was abducted by aliens. Brock is enabled by his delusional wife Peggy, (Sabina Gadecki), and thwarted by his concerned niece Courtney, (Anastasia Baranova). Brock keeps hallucinating a fictitious cop show on television, starring Master of the Universe Ivan Drago himself, who keeps encouraging him to murder “them grays”. Eventually a group of druggie campers, played by various actors too bland to remember and Macaulay’s brother, stumble into their rural psychodrama. Slasher violence ensues, and none of it carries any emotional weight.
This doesn’t even work as a stoner film. Antibirth accomplished similar stylistic flourishes far more seamlessly, and less amateurish. Honestly, I was expecting more. I mean, there’s a Culkin in this fiasco. Shouldn’t that be the mark of quality? Hell, even Dolph Lundgren puts more effort into this than The Expendables and The Punisher combined. But all that sound and fury signifies exactly what you think it does.
There’s no forward momentum. No scene logically transitions into another, no shot transitions. My god, what a missed opportunity. A story about drug addicts violently obsessed with space aliens is an intriguing concept, (circa 1975). But the script by director Trevor Ryan’s brother Tim is first draft material, at best. No line carries weight. The plot has no motivation. One scene around a campfire goes on for about fifteen minutes, and it’s comprised of only three stationary shots. This doesn’t feel like minimalism, trying to create a “naturalistic” experience. It feels like laziness. Frankly, I got bored.
Brock’s niece, Courtney, should be the heart of the movie; our protagonist. But her vanilla flavoring is utterly unpalatable. Midway through the story, she is given a love interest even more dull than her. Why have these characters in it at all? The two villains are far more interesting, pantomime as they are. It feels like a screenplay checking off the tropes, like boxes on a DMV form. “You got to have the virginal girl running around the woods, cause Friday the 13th is a thing that exists.” It’s the horror film equivalent of filling out paperwork. Anastasia Baranova isn’t that great an actor either, which doesn’t help. It’s certainly not for lack of trying, but her chops just aren’t there.
The practical gore effects are strong. Tastefully lit, with heavy shadows and deep golds, making them entirely believable. Ironic, since the primary colors splashed over the dialogue scenes manage to be completely distracting. I do realize the intent was to put the audience into the pharmaceutically deranged mind of Brock, as if we all just downed a bottle of Adderall. On paper that seems like the right instinct; however, the rest of the production design doesn’t follow suit. Especially the editing, which would’ve benefited from a more surrealistic approach, to compliment the cinematography. As it is, we have tons of scenes that feel overly theatrical, for no real reason. Frankly, it was distracting.
To be fair, I must give credit to Sabina Gadecki as the compliant, meth-addled Peggy. She gives the best performance, with ample scenes to chew, and the wherewith-all not to over-masticate. I believed her journey, and I cared about her far more than the lead, Bill Sage. He was clunky, overwrought in his depiction of the paranoid, delusional Brock, who sees every teenager as a little green man. Gadecki was more grounded, broken, empathetic; the Squeaky Fromme to Brock’s Charlie Manson. I would’ve preferred the story had been about her, but then, it would’ve been called Antibirth.
IFC Midnight might be replaying their old hits, but the record’s scratched. It smacks of charity, a palliative to a film school level director. That’s all well and good, but please don’t make me watch it. Welcome to Willits is currently available in limited release and on Amazon VOD.