According to Oscar Wilde, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” If that’s true – and who am I to argue with one of the greatest minds of the last century? – then, the Coen brothers must regard Naveen A. Chathapuram’s backwoods thriller The Last Victim as bona fide cinematic adulation. After all, the film functions as an ode to their masterpiece No Country for Old Men, from its setting, lyricism, and violence to the things it says about humanity, via dialogue that can only be described as “Coen-esque.” That’s not to say Chathapuram’s feature is mediocre. There’s real skill here. The action thriller resembles a colorful buoy bobbing on an ocean of insipid imitators.
While on a cross-country trip with her husband, anthropologist Susan (Ali Larter) reluctantly agrees to make a picturesque detour. Big mistake. Before she knows it, her husband is shot by a gang of goons, led by the Anton Chigurh-like embodiment of Evil, Jake (Ralph Ineson). Susan escapes into the New Mexico desert as local Sheriff Hickey (Ron Perlman) pursues the villainous hicks. This all leads to a surprisingly unexpected twist that involves a potent dose of peyote and a carved-out heart.
The setting – remote, dusty ghost towns with populations ranging from 2 to 20; sun-scorched sands; trailer parks; overgrown country roads – complement the desolate, folk-tale tone permeating the narrative. Chathapuram regards these places and the humans that live there with a grim lyricism and poetry: useless cops who rest on the hoods of their dispatch vehicles instead of solving murders; a quirky young deputy, Mindy Gaboon (Camille Legg), who lends some youthful vigor and humor to the proceedings; and a starry, eternal night sky that renders everything somewhat trivial.
“Susan escapes into the New Mexico desert as local Sheriff Hickey pursues the villainous hicks.“
Certain elements prevent The Last Victim from achieving its lofty ambitions. Sappy soundtrack choices, sketchy character backgrounds/motivations, and Susan’s actual escape – largely consisting of her running in circles – betray a lack of polish in Ashley James Louis’ screenplay. The narration is a bit too much (“How do you even know who you are?” Sheriff Hickey wonders). The film teeters on a fine line between soulful triumph and B-movie cheese.
Luckily, the acting ensemble is uniformly game. Larter sells her character, whether she’s trembling in fear or attacking in rage. Ron Perlman anchors everything with gravitas (why neither the Coens nor Quentin Tarantino have yet hired the stalwart in a lead role remains a mystery). Ralph Ineson does a masterful job as the bigger-than-life scumbag. Camille Legg deserves special kudos for her comedic timing.
“This was a real town back then… Had a real rhythm to it,” Sheriff Hickey waxes poetic, bringing to mind Tommy Lee Jones’s sorrowful law enforcer Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men. There’s a reason for the protagonist’s profession, anthropology: Chathapuram explores what it is that makes us human and separates us from other species, but then, his film argues that even iguanas may have souls. The Last Victim sure pays a helluva tribute to the filmmakers he so clearly loves. Now let’s see him break new ground.
"…explores what it is that makes us human and separates us from other species..."