A man wakes up in a vacant lot in a foreign country, very naked and surrounded by ill-fitting clothes. A hitchhiking poet is picked up by two women in matching white dresses, who ride the line between eccentric and completely nuts—we’re talking pistachio-level nuts. A childlike twenty-something travels along the Southwest, looking for the aliens she already believes have contacted her. These are just a handful of the stray dogs who make up States, written and directed by Zach Gayne.
“A hitchhiker is picked up by two women…who ride the line between eccentric and completely nuts—we’re talking pistachio-level nuts.”
Stories of this sort are thrown into a hat and shaken up, sometimes overlapping, but mostly chasing their own tail. It all comes together to create a road movie that banks on dialogue and characters but doesn’t have the necessary follow-through. The dialogue is largely uninteresting, reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s unironic dorm-room philosophy at its worst. As far as the characters go, it varies. There’s a sequence featuring a Hollywood tour guide that has a certain goofball energy to it. And there’s a slightly infectious whimsy to the alien woman’s story of searching for extraterrestrial contact like a girl who runs away from home to locate the North Pole and meet Santa.
Other characters don’t have so much going for them. The saga of the poet and the cult ladies never finds its footing. While the cult ladies are appropriately weird in a way that’s both fun and progressively unsettling. Gayne tries to work in some kind of family drama and turn the whole thing into a psychedelic spirit journey, like when Johnny Cash was that coyote on The Simpsons. Not only does Gayne not give us a reason to be interested in the poet, but the poetry’s written in such a way that makes him insufferable to listen to, saying things like “I believe in art and expression.” He’s like a college student who took one creative writing class and now believes he has a third eye. By the way, if you have to tell people you’re a poet, you’re not a poet. If you’re a good one, it will precede you; if you’re a bad one, keep it to yourself.
“…searching for extraterrestrial contact like a girl who runs away from home to locate the North Pole and meet Santa.”
A similar problem arises with the drunk guy who has a habit of waking up in unusual places. Gayne doesn’t give us any reason to follow this man. There’s nothing tonally affecting, the dialogue he has with the people he meets is flat, it’s visually bland. In short, there’s nothing to grab onto as the story whizzes by. You can make a movie that’s nothing but people in cars having conversations, and it could be the most riveting movie ever made. But if you set out to do that, you’ve saddled yourself with the burden of writing that movie. You might as well point to the cheap seats before a pitch.
The road has been the stage for some of the greatest American stories. It’s the one place where you can always find freedom, in all its messy, chaotic, dangerous glory. States is messy and chaotic—that much we know—but it’s missing the substance and style that have given the great road stories a reason to be. Instead of sitting in a car with Kerouac and Cassady, States is like sitting in a car with a broken radio that abruptly changes channels every three minutes, with no rhyme, reason, or rhythm. That said, I did like the ending. It reminded me of that Sam Jaffe scene in The Asphalt Jungle. You know, the one with the girl and the jukebox.