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The Driftless Area DVD Review

The Driftless Area (2016) DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com The Driftless Area

DVD Release Date: April 26, 2016 / Running Time: 96 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Zachary Sluser / Writers: Tom Drury (novel & screenplay), Zachary Sluser (screenplay)

Cast: Anton Yelchin (Pierre Hunter), Zooey Deschanel (Stella), John Hawkes (Shane), Alia Shawkat (Carrie Sloan), Aubrey Plaza (Jean), Ciarán Hinds (Ned), Frank Langella (Tim Geer), Benjamin Rogers (Keith), Primo Allon (Lyle), Gary Hetherington (Reverend John Morris), Lucia Frangione (Luanne), Elika Portnoy (Tragic Woman), Amitai Marmorstein (Donald R. Thomas)

2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen / Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish)
Subtitles: English, English for Hearing Impaired, Chinese Traditional, Chinese Simplified, French, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish
Extra Subtitled / Not Closed Captioned
Suggested Retail Price: $25.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9) / Black Keepcase

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Despite a cast led by several cinema-seasoned actors, The Driftless Area, an adaptation of Tom Drury's 2006 novel, foregoes traditional theatrical release and arrives Tuesday on DVD, a year after premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. It's a quality film with a marketable cast and an accessible mystery tale, so the direct-to-video approach raises not just skepticism but confusion.
It is easy to imagine this getting either a wide mainstream release or a limited arthouse run. Either would seem preferable to the path taken, but perhaps not financially, with the film standing to be discovered in Redbox kiosks and On Demand queues alongside theatrical contemporaries, with many renters perhaps unable to distinguish the two classes.

Drury adapts his novel in tandem with Zachary Sluser, the film's first-time feature director who made a 2009 short out of Drury's short story "Path Lights." The less than memorable title refers to the river valley-rich region of the American Midwest (primarily Wisconsin) where our tale is set. We open with protagonist Pierre Hunter (Anton Yelchin) hitchhiking on the side of a country road with a potted rose bush in hand. The young man, an orphaned bartender in a small town called Shale, is picked up by Shane (John Hawkes), described as an "itinerant career criminal" in narration by Pierre's friend Carrie (Alia Shawkat). Shane gruffly demands $20 gas money before revealing his brother in San Antonio has recently "come into" some money.

Pierre Hunter (Anton Yelchin) accepts a hitchhiked ride with lasting consequences in "The Driftless Area."

Shane's undoing is not hubris but in the seemingly unnecessary theft of Pierre's rose bush. A fortuitous rock throw leaves Shane crashed into trees and Pierre in possession of Shane's bag of ill-gotten $77,000 in cash. Naturally, this acquisition is not without consequence. Shane and his colleagues (an ice cold Ciarán Hinds) begin pursuit of the young man.

Meanwhile, this nonlinear story also sees Pierre falling down a well and being rescued by Stella (Zooey Deschanel), a woman we have reason to believe early on died in a recent house fire set by Shane. She helps Pierre prepare for those on his tail, while also consulting with Tim Geer (Frank Langella), a hermit who lives on the outskirts of Shale and brings her things she needs.

While you could guess its origins from its title, The Driftless Area especially plays like contemporary literature. It is a study of characters and place that compels with fascinating ideas, sharp exchanges, and creative descriptions. It is easy to buy into the film's otherworldly elements. They are presented in a level-headed fashion and complement rather than challenge the rural crime drama that drives the plot. There is a timeless feel to the presentation, as you struggle to identify the year this takes place based on fashions and cars. There is a bulky computer monitor and a flip phone, suggesting we may be in the Midwest's version of the mid-Noughties. In other ways, it looks and feels like it could be the '70s, '80s, or '90s.

Town hermit Tim Geer (Frank Langella) and Stella (Zooey Deschanel) have reservations about her interactions with Pierre.

Sluser makes a perfectly competent debut, drawing strong performances from his cast (which also includes Aubrey Plaza as a calculating car rental clerk) and serving the material well. I remain at a loss to understand the film's unceremonious distribution. Sure, you can argue that, even after nearly a decade of productive work, Yelchin's isn't a household name,
let alone one that draws moviegoers. And Deschanel seems to have settled on television stardom, despite some fine work in some great big screen fare. But even if Drury's text wasn't all that well-known, the story might have attracted some interest with the right kind of reviews. It's tough to say if Driftless would have gotten the right reviews; it drew just two negative ones on Rotten Tomatoes from the Tribeca showing.

VIDEO and AUDIO

Though Sony was one of Blu-ray's big backers, the studio is now one of the few keeping the DVD-only release alive. Like most of their DTV titles, they make The Driftless Area available only in standard definition on physical media. The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation certainly lacks the detail and clarity of its 1080p peers, but it is not plagued by anything more specific than a light general murkiness. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack isn't very remarkable in any way. Sony does equip the disc with four dubs and nine subtitle tracks (including two English ones).

Zachary Sluser discusses the experiences of his feature directing debut in "Making 'The Driftless Area'." The Driftless Area's DVD main menu doesn't really suit the film well.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The only bonus feature here is "Making The Driftless Area" (15:39),
an ordinary but good featurette. Serving up the usual blend of talking heads, behind-the-scenes footage, and film clips, the piece finds cast and crew struggling to put a tidy label on the film before considering the adaptation, the cast, and the US and Canadian filming locations. It's a fitting companion to the film.

The disc opens with trailers for (mostly fellow Sony DTV movies) Stealing Cars, Ratter, Hello My Name Is Doris, Home Invasion, Concussion and The 5th Wave. The menu's "Previews" listing repeats them in the same order.

The menus are static and silent, running with a color scheme different from the cover art.

Since Digital HD UltraViolet is not included here, no inserts join the plain silver disc inside the standard black keepcase.

The return of Shane (John Hawkes) with associate Ned (Ciaran Hinds) in tow is not good news for Pierre (Anton Yelchin).

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Driftless Area may carry the stink of being deprived theatrical release, but this rural noir character study proves atmospheric and compelling enough to recommend a viewing. Sony's DVD offers underwhelming picture and sound but a solid making-of featurette.

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Reviewed April 22, 2016.



Text copyright 2016 Radiant Films International, Bron Studios, Unified Pictures, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.