Riding the Bullet review by The Grim Ringler

Like him or lump him, author Stephen King and his works have left a mark on the pop culture landscape that won’t be easily removed. For me, I dig it. Unlike some, I love King and his books, and have for a good many years. Unfortunately, like many creative people, he relinquished many of his works to be adapted and didn’t watch over them enough to make sure that, if nothing else, at least they were decent movies. Alas, there is a lot of mediocrity out on video store shelves. Thankfully though there are a few people, like filmmakers Mick Garris, who actually want to remain true to the spirit of the works they are adapting, feeling, of all things, that if it’s good enough to adapt then maybe the film should reflect the source material. And while his films are not terribly flashy – which is not a bad thing at all – they are accurate depictions of the source material, and in Garris, King, has found someone who respects him and the work enough not to need to muck with it. And so we have Riding the Bullet, which is based on the short story of the same name, a film that is much better than its all-but direct-to-video release would make you think, and a film that respects the work and its writer enough not to remove the heart of the tale.

A very simple tale with a cloudy moral, Riding the Bullet is the story of an artistically gifted college student drifting his way through the end of the sixties. Obsessed with death and dying and floating through life without any direction or passion, so indifferent to the world around him that it costs him his girlfriend, and almost his life. It’s after a failed suicide attempt on his birthday, a day before Halloween, that the young man gets a call that his mother has had a stroke and is in the hospital and he must really confront his obsession with his own death. Not having a car but needing to make it the 120 miles to the hospital his mother is at, the boy, Alan, chooses to hitchhike – ah, an era when you still could, imagine that – his way there. Along his travels he comes across people that, to call eccentric, would be to sell their utter weirdness short. From an ex-soldier hiding out as a hippie, to a strange old man who longs for his dead wife, to some angry, drunk rednecks out for blood, it looks as if everything that can go wrong for Alan, does. Things can get worse though, and do. Worse in the person of the final ride he takes, a ride from someone who knows all too well what death means and entails, and who poses a question to Alan that no one should ever have to answer – Who will live, and who will die? The stranger is going to take one soul back with him when he returns to the land of the dead; will it be Alan, or his mother? And Alan, a man who has been followed by a suicidal legacy since his childhood must now choose to either embrace life, at the cost of his mother’s, or to forfeit his own, to let his single mother life. Choose.

A great story idea wrapped around a lot of lead in, this is a classic story that feels like one of the old campfire ghoulies you’d hear as a kid. The tough thing here for director Garris is to create enough interest in the rest of the film to get you to the choice Alan has to make. Not an easy task. The character of Alan is well played, but hell, let’s face it, he’s a gloomy ass. Which I like. I like that, well, people like this exist and it’s nice to see the character so well created and written. He’s a selfish ass, and he knows it, and he’s working to change that, but it isn’t easy. And his mother is equally well played by Barbara Hershey. His mother isn’t a monster, or a bitch, but a strong woman who lost her husband when her son was but a boy and who has had to do everything in her power to make sure that he grows up as well as possible. She’s a strong, flawed, noble woman. So how do you choose? Ah, therein lies the rub.

The journey Alan takes to get to his mother takes on a surreal tinge and the entire trip seems doomed from the start, and the closer he gets to her the deeper within the shadow of death he becomes, and harder it becomes to reach her. The real standout performance here, for me, was from David Arquette, who portrays George Staub, the specter who poses the big question to Alan. Arquette plays George with a quiet menace that is unlike anything I’d seen from him before and he actually proves that yes, he can act. He instills George with hate and menace, but never pushes it too hard or too far and keeps the character from becoming a caricature or a simple boogeyman.

The heart of the story lies with the question though, and it’s a hell of a question to consider, and is the strongest part of the film. Would you sacrifice your own mother’s life to save yours? Give up whatever future she might have for yours? A hard question to face, and there’s no easy answer or big revelation as to what Alan should choose. And Staub never gives anything away as to which choice is better but leaving it up to Alan to decide.

The film is well made and the tension builds slowly, ramping up, like any good story should, until the final choice is made. There is some wonderfully dark imagery on display here, and it’s great to see. Garris has a good eye for nasty little moments that lead to the feeling of dread, and those moments work well to create the surreal otherworldly place that Alan seems to have wandered into.

The two big flaws with the film are that –

  1. The meat of the story is the last section, so getting there, while fun, does get drawn out.
  2. Alan has a penchant for flights of imagination that begin to feel like the old movie trick of everything having been a dream. It’s not a cheap trick as much as it just gets worn out by the end.

Otherwise, this is a solidly done, well-made ghost story. It’s not flashy, and won’t blow anyone out of the water, but it’s a very good film and is well worth a rental. The film stays true to the heart of the short story and only strays when the film needs to be fleshed out more, but these additions do lend more towards creating Alan as a modern day Ulysses, trying to return to this woman who has always loved him and been there for him. It’s a shame that this was dumped to cable and then to video, as it’s a very solid film, but perhaps on video it will find a bigger audience and makes more money than it would have in a strange and confusing world of theatrical releases. Perhaps a better Halloween film than anything else, this is a fun, scary horror movie that is well worth you rental cash.


7 out of 10 Jackasses
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