“Some endings are written before they begin.”
Jacob Elordi should feel on top of the world right now. The actor has entered the season with two awards-ready performances; as the privileged pretty boy in Saltburn and the King himself, Elvis Presley, in Priscilla. It caps off a banner year in which Elordi has proven to the acting world that he’s more than just an actor coasting off the popularity of the TV series which garnered him attention early on. With so much hype and buzz currently surrounding the actor, Elordi’s next step, a starring role in an indie that he co-produced, feels logical. But while He Went That Way seems to offer something for the actor to add to his resume in the form of a watchable performance as a cool, slick killer, he should instead petition to get this whole film taken off of his IMDb page.
Inspired by the true case of serial killer Larry Lee Ranes, He Went That Way tells the story of animal trainer Jim (Zachary Quinto), who is traveling on the road with celebrity chimpanzee Spanky (Phoenix Notary). On the way to his destination, Jim decides to pick up handsome hitchhiker Bobby (Elordi), who soon reveals himself to be a vicious killer.
Things certainly start off promising enough in He Went That Way. There’s a rapid-fire energy that the movie opens with that propels it forward and makes the audience instantly sit up. This is fueled by a collection of noir aspects that add to the film’s initial pleasures, such as the desert road landscape, mysterious characters with something to hide, and a minimalist production design that also does its part to help pull the audience in. All of this is quickly tossed aside, however, in favor of a heightened staginess that threatens to take things to camp before trying its hand at some very poor surrealism and fantasy. The filmmakers even manage a brief fashion makeover moment that feels more at home in a fish-out-of-water comedy than a dark tale about a serial killer. Eventually, the whole film goes off the rails as nothing the characters do or react to makes much sense. At one point Bobby kills an innocent bystander and rather than dwell on it, he and Jim bond over the murderer’s shyness and loneliness. Meanwhile, a later scene that sees Bobby stabbing a cook is followed by a weirdly tender moment featuring Jim teaching Bobby how to properly feed Spanky. When the movie isn’t concerned with bloodshed, it struggles to find its characters something to do. The film’s desperation is at its peak whenever it shows the two leads interacting with Spanky, who is given so much screen time, that he inevitably ends up with the richest character arc.
At its center, He Went That Way is trying to position itself as a character piece even as it repeatedly lets its characters down. The film doesn’t know how to handle the ambiguity of its two central figures and never fully leans into the mystery or the desperation that’s plaguing both Bobby and Jim. There’s never enough room to fully get to know either individual even in the simplest of genre terms. Not even the suggested homoerotic subtext is handled well enough to delve into. Like everything else in the film, it’s explored at such an elementary level there was no need to bother in the first place. All we have are their actions to go by, which never seem to have any other purpose than to bide time. Jim’s actions, especially, just don’t make sense. In one instance, the pair, with Spanky in tow, go and try to find Bobby someone to genuinely connect with on an emotional level. Is it self-preservation, or does Jim really start to form a bond with Bobby, causing him to feel sympathy for this dangerous man he has plenty of opportunities to get away from but doesn’t? When Jim does shake Bobby loose, he actually goes back to track him down. It’s here where the bond between the two is meant to show itself, but instead just becomes the most embarrassing moment in a wholly embarrassing film.
Both actors are trying their best throughout He Went That Way, and their efforts carry the film further than it deserves. Even though the script repeatedly lets them down, the chemistry between Elordi and Quinto proves almost enough to keep watching. The pair fully dive into their characters and give dynamic performances in their own right. Elordi continues to impress with another varied characterization, while the film serves as a great reminder of reminding us just how undervalued Quinto continues to be.
The film’s “inspired by a true story” element intrigued me, so much so that after the screener was over, I went and read the Wikipedia article detailing Ranes and his crimes, which proved far more diverting and poetic than anything this film was trying to impart. Even a postscript interview with the real-life Quinto counterpart and vintage footage of the actual Spanky says more than anything this film does in its entire 90-plus minutes. It’s sad to have to start the movie year off with a largely melancholic buddy road movie featuring a psychopath and a celebrity chimp. But He Went That Way can’t help the film it is, especially when you realize it’s genuinely buying what it’s trying to sell. That’s hands down the saddest part of all.