Wander opens with the following text: “To all Indigenous, Black, and people of colour who are targeted, and have been displaced through border control on stolen land. May we expose government violence, propel change and honour the voices of those who have been silenced. Wander was filmed on the homelands of the Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache peoples.” Director April Mullen displays the expansive beauty of these native lands in the numerous dolly shots backed by Alexandra Mackenzie’s exquisite score. Russ De Jong and Gavin Smith’s vivid cinematography makes the arid landscapes seem bright and lively. The references to stolen land and governmental violence are an overture to the film’s themes of post-election American politics.
In the harrowing opening scene, we see a young woman crawl out of an overturned SUV in the middle of the desolate desert. She starts to run away but is shot dead. Within this wide shot, we see no gun or shooter, just a strange burst in the middle of her chest. 90 miles away, we meet Arthur and Jimmy, starring Aaron Eckhart and Tommy Lee Jones, whose formidable performances and chemistry are the highlight of the film. Their roles couldn’t be more appropriate in the age of QAnon and Trumpism, playing podcast hosts who investigate conspiracy theories such as the Illuminati and secret government “human testing facilities.” They broadcast from their RVs in the middle of the desert to avoid exposure.
Jones brings his usual crank-pot charm, but it is the scruffy-faced Eckhart who stands out the most and practically carries Wander on his shoulders. Arthur is an ex-homicide cop dealing with severe mental health issues after a car accident that left his wife catatonic and killed his daughter died. Since Arthur does not always take his medication, he has a difficult time distinguishing between reality and fantasy. Although the narrative logic of Wander becomes muddied, what Mueller does best is convey Anthony’s escalating paranoia and anxiety in the unhinged, claustrophobic camera angles. After the distressed mother (Deborah Chavez) of the victim in the opening scene calls into Arthur and Jimmy’s show and asks to investigate her daughter’s mysterious death, Arthur reluctantly travels to Wander, the odd town on the outskirts of her killing. What unfolds is a nefarious government conspiracy involving implants, immigrants, and an underground surgical ward that becomes quite difficult to make sense of. The constant questioning of narrative reliability can be more exhausting than intriguing, but Wander has an idiosyncratic roughness, anchored by a powerful central performance and overall political relevance, that truly draws you in.
Wander is available on VOD now
by Caroline Madden
Caroline is the author of Springsteen as Soundtrack. Her favourite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Baby It’s You, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She is the Editor in Chief of Video Librarian. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss.