If a mystery or a twist in a film is predictable, is the movie still worthwhile? What I mean is, does the success of the story rely solely on that reveal? If you know what turns the story takes within the first few minutes of the film, are you still able to be engaged by the plot? For me, the answer lies on a case-by-case basis. Presuming the acting, directing, cinematography, and other categories one can weigh a film by, are up to snuff, then the movie can absolutely still work. Of course, if most, or all, of those elements fail, then the shortcomings of the conventional plot become more noticeable, sometimes to the point of distraction.
What Lies Ahead hinges off a twist that you’ll easily surmise after the first five minutes; one that even the trailer gives away. With that in mind, what is this Rob Gardner directed, road trip thriller about? Kyle (Kelly Blatz) and Raven’s (Rumer Willis) mother recently died in their hometown in Georgia. Kyle lives in New York City and intends to fly back there and then road trip with his sister back to NYC; where Raven will be moving to be closer to her only living family.
However, Kyle gets called into the hospital where he works and is unable to make the trip. In his stead, his significant other Jessica (Emma Dumont) goes to Georgia and meets up with Raven. The two ladies finish loading up the car and hit the road. They make small talk, play a few road games (including an odd variation of truth or dare), and get to know each other during the long trip. Upon stopping for gas, Jessica is unable to find her phone and freaks out. Raven calms her down, swearing it must be buried amongst all the other junk in the car.
“…intends to fly back there and then road trip with his sister back to NYC…In his stead, his significant other…meets up with Raven.”
After checking into a motel for the night, the newly minted friends hit up a bar. They both drink a little too much, so Raven gets a random guy named Buddy (James Harper) there to hit on Jessica. Jessica attempts to make polite small talk, but the man proves a little too insistent for her liking, so she excuses herself to the restroom. Buddy and a friend of his follow the ladies across the street to their motel. Jessica is scared but Raven pulls a gun on the two, and they leave without incident. The next morning, Jessica tells Raven that she does not appreciate her little stunt and Raven cites her inebriated state as the reason for it. The way Raven apologizes puts Jessica on edge, as other elements of Raven’s behavior have puzzled her from the start. But, Kyle is too busy at the hospital to answer his phone whenever his sister calls, so answers are hard to come by. What are Raven’s true intentions toward Jessica? Or is Jessica making a big deal over nothing more than a strong-willed person acting out while in a state of grief?
What Lies Ahead is the film debut of Rob Gardner, and he proves perfectly fine in that role. While there is a distinct lack of style, the camera setups, and edits are very journeyman, he does solidly craft atmosphere. Once the road trip begins, there is an uneasiness that permeates throughout. When Raven tricks an employee at a fast food burger joint and steals the food they ordered, against Jessica’s protests, Raven plays it off like a prank. This cavalier attitude toward vices never sits well with Jessica nor the audience.
First-time screenwriter William J. Viglione wrote the film. The two main characters are nicely fleshed out and engaging. The awkward moments in their conversations feel natural, as strangers thrown together on a long journey. The plot though is where the film takes a mighty hit. The reveal of what is actually transpiring between the two women is very easy to guess, which in and of itself is not the worst thing. However, the why is disappointing, and the audience is not given enough information about Kyle, as he is only a voice over the phone, for there to be much of an impact felt.
“…feel quite confident in stating that Willis has never been better…”
However, the weaknesses in the script are overcome by Willis and Dumont, both of whom shine brightly. I am unfamiliar with Emma Dumont (apparently she’s in Inherent Vice, though I don’t recall her in it) but she plays the shy and sweet Jessica perfectly and wins the viewer over to her side with ease. Rumer Willis has had a habit of appearing in not-very-good movies such as the genuinely dreadful Future World and the bland Sorority Row remake. As such, it might be a little unfair to judge how good an actress she is based on those projects. With that in mind, I feel quite confident in stating that Willis has never been better before. She infuses Raven with such brashness that the audience can’t help but be taken in. When Raven confesses to Jessica that the real reason she had Buddy hit on her was to test how loyal Jessica is to Kyle, that twisted logic sounds somewhat sane coming out of her mouth.
What Lies Ahead is predictable, and the direction lacks finesse. However, the main characters are well realized, and Willis and Dumont are absolutely perfect in their respective roles. It is worth watching at least once, maybe more if you are a big fan of either of these actresses.
What Lies Ahead (2019) Directed by Rob Gardner. Written by William J. Viglione. Starring Rumer Willis, Emma Dumont, Kelly Blatz, James Harper.
6.5 out of 10 Stars