Autumn Road is the feature-length directorial debut of Riley Cusick, who triples as writer and lead actor in two roles for the film. For a newcomer, this is a tremendous undertaking, but perhaps too ambitious as the film may have benefited from some delegation to allow Cusick to focus on directing and writing only.
The film focuses on a small cast of characters in a sleepy, dreary small town. Ten years before the main story, twin brothers Charlie and Vincent (played by Ranger and Jonas Lerway as children) get caught up in the disappearance of Winnie (Maddy-Lea Hendrix) during Halloween night. Ten years later, Winnie’s aspiring-actress sister Laura (Lorelai Linklater) comes back to her hometown after another personal tragedy devastates her. She meets back up with Charlie and Vincent (now played by Cusick) who still run their father’s local haunted house attraction. Laura finds herself trying to understand both brothers as she bonds with Charlie and grows wary of Vincent’s unstable nature.
Autumn Road has a compelling premise, but its best scenes happen early with the children as it sets up its story. Winnie and Charlie’s childhood bonding feels sincere, and the talk Charlie and Vincent’s father gives them after Winnie’s disappearance offers up warmth and wisdom. Those scenes set up a solid movie about loss and guilt, but unfortunately, that’s not the movie we get.
The film suffers most from uneven acting despite moments of lucidity from its performers. Cusick does his best to rotate between the twins, but Vincent in particular as a violent, unnerving young man never feels fully formed even though his actions drive the film. Laura should be the lead and the linchpin of the film’s emotional journey, but her main role is simply being Winnie’s sister, and her own plot is thin for most of the movie until she starts to unravel the mystery of her sister’s disappearance late in the film.
Despite focusing on a haunted house, Autumn Road is not a horror film as much as a dark drama that utilises a few moments of horror to carry its mood. The film establishes itself early as a character piece light on violence, but at the end of the second act and through its conclusion, it offers up one truly upsetting moment of violence and a separate revolting instance of cruelty. These don’t feel like dramatic punctuations as much as moments of narratively-unearned shock that hinge on flimsy character motivation. At many points throughout the film, I found myself asking “Why would someone do that in this circumstance?” The aspects of revenge and emotional volatility need stronger development to serve as believable motivations for these disturbing moments.
There’s a golden kernel of narrative lying beneath several layers of stilted acting and filmmaking to Autumn Road. Winnie’s disappearance as a frame for the story works very well, but besides a few luminous moments, the film doesn’t monopolise on it enough to show the full impact of it on the characters. Ultimately, Winnie’s story mostly goes to waste as the film explores other less interesting avenues that often prove to be dead-ends. The conclusion of the story, shown with a voice-over montage, feels like a fantasised ending rather than a real one. Even though the film itself doesn’t suggest it as an illusion, it feels so untethered from the story that it’s hard not to doubt its reliability.
Autumn Road is commendable in its efforts to take risks and push aesthetics. There are some great moments that elevate the film to reach its potential. It’s a bold, strange, and crooked film, giving off some similar vibes as Ryan Gosling’s Lost River. It may appeal to some fans of all things Halloween and small-town spookiness, but will be a pass for those looking for a heftier drama.
Autumn Road is out on Digital HD and Cable VOD in the US now
by Bishop V. Navarro
Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter