Comedians making horror movies or otherwise moonlighting in the genre is nothing new. And then there’s the oft repeated adage about the fine line separating the two—just look at Jordan Peele’s quote about the difference between horror and comedy being the music. Anyway, the latest comedy personality to dip his toe into the scary end of the pool is The State and Brooklyn Nine-Nine alum Joe Lo Truglio, who makes his feature directorial debut with Outpost.
Following a violent attack, Kate (Beth Dover) runs as far as she can, to a fire-watch outpost on top of an Idaho mountain. Looking to find healing in the isolation and silence, she soon discovers that, as her closest neighbor Reggie (Dylan Baker) says, it may be silent, but it won’t be quiet.
In this minimalist set up, Kate finds she can’t outpace her trauma. Even alone in the wilderness, or perhaps because of her solitude, she descends in to fear and paranoia, besieged by flashbacks and hallucinations. As she spirals, the edges of reality blur and it becomes difficult to distinguish what is real and what is not? Are those hikers just bros or an actual threat? Is Reggie the nice widower he appears to be, or is it a façade hiding something much darker?
Lo Truglio, who also wrote the script, doles out bits of mystery along the way like breadcrumbs on the trail. And while the story initially seems to be a tale of one woman reclaiming her life and power on a restorative journey, Outpost inverts the victim-looking-to-rebuild narrative in occasionally wild fashion—the final act takes things to unexpected and brutal places.
Most known for comedy, Dover does a fantastic job as Kate, struggling to hold on by the most tenuous threads, pretending to have a grip even as she unravels. It’s a raw nerve of a performance, and once things cut loose, she fully dives in. Few actors toe the line between maybe he’s a nice, normal guy and maybe he’s a total creeper like Baker, and Lo Truglio and the movie get their money’s worth from him. Becky Ann Baker shows up as a kindly hiker Kate uses as a sounding board, though she evolves into something else entirely, and Dallas Roberts plays a ranger who may or may not have ulterior motives. Again, all this plays into the theme of Kate’s fraying sanity.
Outpost offers up a gorgeous movie to look at and the visuals help create thematic depth and texture. The setting is stunning to behold, and cinematographer Frank Barrera shoots the hell out of the sprawling landscape that looks so innocuous on the surface but that hides all manner of dangers, driving home the desolation and loneliness. They also put the tower itself to good use. Looming high above the mountain as it does, in what is essentially a glass box that, by necessity, has open 360-degree views, Kate is both simultaneously removed from the world but also nakedly exposed.
While Kate’s narrative is fleshed out and well rendered, other elements remain more nebulous and ill-defined. Chief among these is a recurring thread of strife between Kate’s best friend Nickie (Ta’Rea Campbell) and her forest ranger brother Earl (Ato Essandoh). The film alludes to long-simmering family conflict about Nickie’s sexuality, but nothing much comes of it and while at times it seems like a big deal, it never is the big picture. The same goes for Earl’s backstory. The script references as mistake he made that almost led to a fire destroying the whole town. This thread clearly aims to parallel Kate’s lingering wounds and scars, but again, nothing ever comes of it.
With both examples, and others, it leaves the impression that in some version there is more of these stories. It’s clear Lo Truglio has something significant in mind for them. Perhaps earlier drafts of the script or cuts of the film dig into these asides. Or, we’re talking about a low-budget indie movie here, it’s possible they couldn’t get the shots they needed to fully execute these ideas. Whatever the reason, it’s clear they’re supposed to be important, but as they play out on screen, that intended weight becomes more of a distraction than anything.
Outpost has lofty aims and takes big swings. Though not all of them land and it never quite reaches the possible highs you see, this is a hell of a debut. It treats a tough, touchy subject with relative empathy and takes what has become a familiar narrative and flips it enough to create something interesting and unique. Also, tons of crazy axe shit. If Outpost is any indication, hopefully Lo Truglio will have a long career making horror movies. [Grade: B]