A young woman, frantic and covered in blood, flees unknown pursuers. An older woman, a fixer with an as-yet-undefined degenerative condition, is tasked with tracking her down and stopping her from crossing the border. So begins writer/director John Rosman’s taut horror-thriller New Life.
The young woman is Jessica (Hayley Erin); her counterpart Elsa (Sonya Walger). That’s what we know at first, as Rosman drops the viewer into this cat and mouse scenario that, at least initially, leans heavily on mood and tension, and chooses to sprinkle a few scarce details here and there. It’s an effective, engaging choice, doling out information in flashes and glimpses. Elsa works for a shadowy organization, maybe governmental, maybe not, with deep pockets and possibly illicit access damn near any surveillance, communication, or technological tool available. All of which forces Jessica to run as far and as deep as possible, keeping to the shadows and outskirts—even just appearing in the background of a security video puts her in harm’s way.
This is where New Life works best, as a tense, borderline tech thriller. Elsa, though highly skilled in her chose profession, has long been disillusioned, and as she goes through the motions possibly one last time, she bears the added weight of her recent life-altering diagnosis. On the other side, Jessica hitchhikes and stows away and relies on the small kindnesses of strangers to survive and fly under the radar. As she travels, her solitude forces her to examine her own life and choices. Walger and Erin give fantastic performances. Both characters carry enormous, complicated burdens, and the actors imbue them with the nuance and subtlety that grounds and sells their roles.
Along the way, Rosman drops in big bombs that fundamentally change the film’s trajectory, how we view the two main characters, and bump up the stakes from personal and individual to global and apocalyptic in scale. This is also where things falter a bit.
It’s difficult to talk about this without revealing one big piece of information. (Whether or not it’s a “spoiler” may be up for debate; the reveal occurs fairly early, at the end of act one, but it’s still best to go in as cold as possible.) Without getting into specifics, the second act, and action of subsequent acts, hinges on your ability to accept this one key fact. When the script tries to explain and justify the events of the film, it falls into that category of stories where all of this could easily have been avoided by a single earnest conversation early on. This can be and has been done in situations where, for example, a flawed character makes a poor decision and must deal with the fallout. But that’s not the case here, it’s more of a narrative convenience than thematically linked to anything else, and it’s frustrating as hell. One simple, “Hey, here’s why we did what we did,” and everything would have played out much differently.
But, if you can accept this one storytelling choice and not nitpick about it too closely, the rest of New Life owns. The story shifts and shimmies in intriguing ways that manage to thrill as well as pack an emotional wallop. At times it veers deep into horror territory—it almost becomes a zombie movies late in the game—complete with gnarly gore effects, continually escalating consequences, and some wild swings. The less you know about New Life going in, the better, but it’s certainly a twisting, turning, pressure-packed ride worth taking. [Grade: B]