The text with which Wander opens offers a dedication to “all indigenous, black, and people of color who are targeted and have been displaced through border control on stolen land”, and expresses a desire to “expose government violences, propel change and honor the voices of those who have been silenced.” Sure enough, the film opens with what appears to be a particularly violent example of border control, and a truth being confined to silence. For as the camera races along a highway at dusk up to a car that has just overturned, Zoe Guzman (Elizabeth Selby) staggers out of the wreckage and runs in a panic – and at the moment she crosses the signposted limits of smalltown Wander, her chest explodes to the sound of two loud bangs, and she drops dead on the bitumen. The following morning, a mysterious blonde woman (Katheryn Winnick) uses tweezers at the scene to extract something tiny from Zoe’s chest, and appears to arrange a cover-up with Sheriff Luis Santiago (Raymond Cruz) and other locals.
It is the sort of scenario that the film’s protagonist Arthur Bretnik (Aaron Eckhart) might dream up. Arthur lives in a trailer off grid in the desert, where he regularly records The Fog Junction – a “deep web podcast dedicated to all things conspiracy” – under the stars with Jimmy Cleats (Tommy Lee Jones). Jimmy is one of Arthur’s only two friends, the other being Shelley Luscomb (Heather Graham), an insurance agent for whom Arthur does occasional surveillance work – although Arthur also regularly ventures out to visit a woman in a care home. She is, or was, Arthur’s wife Tanya (Nicole Steinwedell), rendered catatonic two years earlier by a vehicular collision which also left Arthur with a permanent limp, and killed their young daughter. Now Arthur, a former homicide detective, has become not just a private investigator but a broken, bitter loner – and in a blur of mourning and mental decline, he has grown convinced that this accident was no accident, but rather an assassination attempt against him (with the rest of his family the tragic collateral damage) after his last police case had led him to chance upon a dangerous secret which he still does not understand. As Arthur chats on air about government plots involving tunnel networks and “hidden testing facilities”, he is clearly trying in his own way to impose a meaningful, tangible explanatory framework onto an otherwise arbitrary world ruled only by his grief, guilt and loss.
“Pawn, patsy or dead” are the three possible endings that Jimmy lays out for whistleblowers like himself and Arthur. So when Arthur is contacted by Zoe’s mother Elena (Deborah Chavez), who believes that there was something very suspicious about her daughter’s death, paranoid, pill-popping Arthur – and we with him – remain hyperaware that he may be being manipulated, framed, or lured to his death. Nonetheless Arthur heads into Wander, hoping to solve not only the particular riddle of Zoe, but the greater enigma of his own miserable life. “Why would anyone live here?”, Arthur asks of the neglected town – and yet this shifty, neurotic, dysfunctional man seems oddly at home in this rundown milieu. Wander, you see, reflects Arthur’s wandering mind – and so here, as in their previous 88 (2015), director April Mullen and writer Tim Doiron pull off the trick of letting mental illness collide with genre, and seeing what emerges from the bump and grind of that clashing crosstalk.
Wander pivots on an ambiguity embedded deeply in its narrative structure: are we watching a disturbed, medicated man retreating dangerously into his own hallucinatory delusions, or is he actually getting to the bottom of an all too real QAnon-style cabal? Trying to square that circle will tie the viewer in all manner of hermeneutic knots – and adding to the sense of confusion is the clever casting of Eckhart, who is more normally associated with playing the clean-cut all-American he-man, but who here is reduced to a faltering, manic, beardy mess. Arthur’s overt unhingedness derails him from being the straightforward hero we expect from this actor, and leaves us unsure what to make of his character, right to – and even beyond – the film’s close. For this film patrols an invisible boundary between the underground hellhole of our protagonist’s inner mind and the horrors of the real world beyond.
Even if the text from the beginning of Wander becomes ever harder to relate in any literal manner to the improbable scenario that is unfolding, it nonetheless retains its allegorical force, with the town of Wander serving as a microcosm of a white America that mistreats, objectifies and exploits both its native and immigrant populations – and that, at least, is no crazy conspiracy theory.
strap: April Mullen’s small-town detective story brings mental illness and conspiracy theory into violent collision with genre.
© Anton Bitel