Written for the screen and directed by: Mick Garris
Reviewed by: Brett H.
“You have to decide now.”
“Who rides the Bullet and who stays on the ground.”
“Who rides the Bullet and who stays on the ground.”
Stephen King has without a doubt made a mark on the book and motion picture world like no other author in recent history. Although I’ve read only a handful of his books, I have seen many a film based on his works since I was a wee lad. Many have been hits and a few have been a miss, but generally if you see the name Stephen King on a movie, it’s at the very least a film worth researching. The King efforts after about 1997 have been significantly less entertaining than ones prior, but overall you’ll want to give the majority of the films based on his efforts a shot. Mick Garris has directed a handful of King treasures, from the The Stand to a TV re-telling of The Shining to one of my childhood favorites, Sleepwalkers and they range in quality from amazing to decent. Riding the Bullet marked Garris’ return to King land after over half a decade absence. Is it time to rejoice, or will it be more akin to a bullet to the temple?
It’s October 30, 1969 and all the signs of the time are present. War protestors are making their beliefs known and hippies are getting high and rocking out to Hendrix and John Lennon. Alan Parker (Jonathan Jackson) is a young art student attending classes at the University of Maine who rather than capture the love of the time, prefers to add a touch of the morbid to his works of art. Alan is a troubled, depressed soul and it seems as though all of his friends have snubbed him on this, the day of his birth. Upset, he gets high and drunk while taking a bath anddecides to take a blade out of his razor and slice his wrists. While he is debating going through with it in his head, the Grim Reaper enters the room and tells him that it’s a good idea. He tells him that no one appreciates him and by killing himself, it’d show everyone how important he is. Suddenly the bathroom door opens and the shock causes him to slice his wrist open. Standing before him is his girlfriend, Jessica (Erika Christensen) and all of his friends.
Alan comes to his senses and promises Jessica nothing like that would ever happen again. His girlfriend buys him tickets to go see John Lennon in Toronto, but won’t go with him. As he’s telling his buddies about the tickets he scored, he gets a call from his old neighbour. She tells him that his mother has had a stroke and he immediately gives his tickets to his buddies and thumbs it back to his hometown. Along the way, he continues to hallucinate, daydream, and ponder his existence and how the world takes him, but the closer he gets to home, the crazier things get. He’s chased off the road by some hicks and manages to get away from them and winds up in an old graveyard and he stumbles upon the resting place of George Staub (David Arquette). A man of the same name picks him up down the road, and his face is exactly the same as the one he saw on the tombstone of George Staub. George gives him an ultimatum and lays it out the supreme ultimatum. Either he dies or his mother does. Is it drugs, is Alan insane… or is this really happening?
I wish I could answer the question that ends the last paragraph. Riding the Bullet doesn’t make too much sense, it’s up to you to figure out what is going on. At the same time, so little is explained that you really want to know what the deal is and since there’s so little evidence going for all any of the scenarios that you just end up in a mass of confusion. Alan hallucinates and conjures up so many freaky happenings that you really want to like the film, but the problem lies in the subject at hand. By the hour mark, you have seen so many figments of Alan’s imagination that you just sort of think to yourself, “wonderful – more bullshit.” If you’re familiar with Freddy’s Nightmare TV series, this is exactly what Riding the Bullet comes off as (albeit infinitely better in production value, acting and direction). A whole lot of weird things happening and the lines between reality and fiction are blurred, but you really don’t care because at the end of the day you know that nothing is going to be explained and rarely does anything tangible come of it. After the initial 20 minutes of the film to the last 30 minutes, you basically can sum it up with two words. “Weird shit”.
There’s something not right about Alan, and aside from being depressed, his mental stability is questioned because he sees himself and converses with the phantom. Oddly enough, some other people (mostly the crazies he encounters on his journey) can see the phantom version of himself as well. It’s most likely that Alan is just making all of this up in his head and we’re seeing how his mind is his biggest enemy by actually seeing everything as his thought process sees it, until the Stand By Me ending takes over and throws you for a real loop. Overall everything that happens to Alan is death related, from his father’s mysterious passing to his mother’s condition and the personal demons he is facing. Even the weird people he encounters are all contained in a realm of death and every one of them has a story to tell. The problem isn’t the amount of hallucinations, it is the fact that after it ends there is no explanation to tie anything together and it basically amounts to just watching weird shit happen to a guy for no particular reason and with no particular resolve.
Riding the Bullet picks it up when George Staub enters the picture, and things begin to get very interesting because out of all the things in the movie, this is the most likely to be considered “real.” George Staub is a modern version of the Grim Reaper and is without a doubt the best part of the movie. Tension is high when George steps on the scene and the choice Alan must make is probably the hardest choice anyone could ever have to make. The title of the movie is named after a roller coaster at an amusement park that both George and Alan are familiar with – the Bullet. The roller coaster theme is interesting, as it brings across the point that life has all the ups and downs of a roller coaster ride, and along with that they also have one other thing in common. Each must come to an end. It’s apparent Alan doesn’t want to die and the journey he goes on proves this to himself, but he has to lose before he realizes that he wants to win. This theme would have been much more poetic had everything before it been a struggle of himself contemplating suicide rather than him daydreaming or hallucinating strange situations. With that said, it still works to a degree.
Riding the Bullet is a slick looking film with good acting and an interesting premise. It opens well and it ends well, but everything in between is so up in the air that it’s hard to take much from it. When push comes to shove and Alan is faced with the ultimatum, the movie is very good, but overall you’re just left asking for more time with George Staub. Ideally, you want things to be tied up at least to a degree where there’s decent proof that the events did or did not happen while other areas are left open for those who like to make what they choose of a story. It’s good for a film to leave some things up to the viewer, but it goes too far here. It’s a shame because with some minor tweaks and at least a few questions answered, this could have been a very effective film in tone, plot, and characterization. The DVD picture quality is great and the rich directorial work of Garris’ is highlighted all the more because of it. The disc is loaded with fairly interesting short featurettes and commentary tracks, Lions Gate treats it well. Even if you are terrified of roller coasters, you should Ride the Bullet at least once. Rent it!
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