Fantastic Fest 2023: Morality Tale Meets Mexican Standoff at THE LAST STOP IN YUMA COUNTY

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

Francis Galluppi’s enthralls and entertains with his debut feature

Murphy’s law states, “If something can go wrong, it will go wrong”. This feels like the mantra that’s drives the fate of the many characters in The Last Stop in Yuma County, who all find themselves on a fateful collision course as greed competes with survival in a calamitous, crime thriller.

Yuma County Arizona, the year 1981. A knife salesman (Jim Cummings, Thunder Road) pulls in to top up his depleted gas tank. A delayed delivery, dry pumps, and 100 miles to the next stop, see him directed by gas Station owner Vernon (Faizon Love, Elf) to wait at the diner next door. A local establishment, just opening up for the day after the Sheriff (Michael Abbott Jr., The Death of Dick Long) drops off his wife Charlotte (Jocelin Donahue, Doctor Sleep, House of the Devil) for her shift. During small talk over the pouring of a coffee, another car arrives carrying two travelers also meeting the same predicament. Before long they recognize these men, Travis (Nicholas Logan, Dark Winds) and Beau (Richard Brake, Barbarian, Vesper), as the perpetrators of a bank robbery a few towns away. En route to Mexico, these brothers need gas to make their getaway. Suspicions are soon aroused as an attempted phone call to the Sheriffs office sparks the robbers into action. A hostage situation unfolds where the men hold the diner and its inhabitant’s hostage until either the gas truck arrives, or someone with a full tank does. As time ticks away, new arrivals add to an already combustible situation.

The opening credits sequence lets the audience in on a secret, that gas truck isn’t coming. A camera panning across the wrecked vehicle and its dead driver off the highway while the playful composition Love is Blue by Paul Mauriat plays. An early glimpse at the dance between mirth and macabre that informs the film. What does arrive is a smorgasbord of faces (many familiar to genre cinema fans) providing a constant drip of fresh energy and more fuel for the fire within this precarious situation. Elderly couple Robert (Gene Jones, The Sacrament, No Country for Old Men) and Earline (Robin Bartlett, The Seventh Day) contrast with the Bonnie and Clyde styled pairing of Miles (Ryan Masson, Proximity) and Sybil (Sierra McCormick, The Vast of Night), although they prefer the stylings of Holly and Kit from Badlands. Local farmer Pete (Jon Proudstar, Reservation Dogs), who’s just after some biscuits and gravy. We even get a visit from befuddled Deputy Sheriff Gavin (Connor Paolo, Stake Land) whose coffee run that might be their best opportunity to get a cry for help out.

This pressure cooker scenario is cooked up by writer/director Francis Galluppi, with The Last Stop in Yuma County serving as his debut feature. The plot is simple, but the setup and execution is anything but. Dripping in new ingredients to this mix and letting them boil away, Galluppi builds tension, making great use of the space, sight-lines, the emotions on show, and the physicality of the folk in this diner. There’s also a skilled shorthand on display in terms of sketching out these characters and their shifting stances as danger becomes more apparent, they see an opening for escape, or a chance to lay their hands on the loot from the bank robbery. An interesting moral quandary that is well explored, as are the unpredictable elements of human nature that fuel choices, especially greed and plain old stupidity. Much of this feeds the emotion, and rich vein of black comedy that runs through the film.

The film is brimming with talent who all make the most of their scenes, big or small, to leverage in emotion. Brake excels with his chewing of dialogue and seething menace, while Jim Cummings, whose comedic timing and delivery is (as usual) perfection. Donahue is truly endearing and provides the beating heart of the film.

Despite the grey areas the film deals with, it’s aesthetic is on the other end of the spectrum. Arizona’s sunny skies and a dusty 70s aesthetic brought to life by textured production design and retro set decoration from Charlie Textor and Karli Watlan are beautifully lit by Mac Fisken‘s cinematography. A simmering score from Matthew Compton is punctuated by some devilishly good musical tracks from Lou Christie, Roy Orbison, the Grass Roots, and more.

There’s a sense of polish about every aspect of The Last Stop in Yuma County, and real consideration about every creative choice. The film certainly feels like an homage in many ways. A tribute to neo-noir with a dash of Western thrown in for good measure, bringing to mind the works of both Peckinpah and the Coen Brothers. But Galluppi’s own craft and vision is clear. Leveraging an enthralling Mexican standoff as a means to drive home how greed is anything but good, as well as plant a marker attesting to his own talents. A superb debut feature and straight up, one of the most entertaining films of this year’s fest.

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