Oh, how badly I wanted to love Outpost. To discover Outpost. To watch another hilarious comedian follow in the footsteps of Jordan Peele and Zach Cregger by making the jump to horror filmmaking in a way that is as stylish as it is thoughtful, as thematically resonant as it is scary. My dream did not come true, but the bad news — the film doesn’t work nearly as well as it could— comes with a heaping helping of good news as well: Joe Lo Truglio, alum of The State and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, definitely has a future as a filmmaker. This is perhaps what makes Outpost as frustrating an experience as it is. There’s something here. There’s a version of this that works incredibly well, it’s just not this version.
The idea is a solid one. Kate (Beth Dover), a young woman fresh out of an abusive relationship, takes a volunteer fire watching position in the woodlands of California(?). It’s a 90-day job which will provide her with solitude, structure, and plenty of fresh air. As horror movies go, isolation can mean a lot of things, and if memory serves, a fire watchtower has never been used as a novelty location for a fright flick before. In terms of filmmaking, it is used to great effect here. As far as I can tell it’s an actual location, which means there’s plenty of gorgeous natural photography to support the setting. The claustrophobia of the tower itself is constantly juxtaposed against the vast wilderness it stands above, and the plot, although meandering, makes great use of the many mini-settings contained within. There’s the general store, the home of a local widower (Dylan Baker), and the main ranger station, run by the no-nonsense brother (Ato Essandoh) of Kate’s best friend (Ta’Rea Campbell). Lo Truglio’s script bounces between these locations with ease, all while maintaining a “single location” feel.
From a filmmaking perspective, there’s a lot to like. Lo Truglio’s camera is always active, often seeking uncommon angles and cutaways to keep a static sequence feeling active. My man even busts out a split diopter, as every horror-meister worth their mettle is wont to do. The film is a bit shaggy in this regard, but it’s an exciting energy that will undoubtedly become a mark of style as this newer filmmaker refines his abilities. The work from the actors is exceptional too, a highlight being Becky Ann Baker as a peppy hiker who enjoys giving Kate company. It’s clear that Lo Truglio’s work in an ensemble comedy format informs the way these characters all interact. It’s through their interactions that the script shines, and through which this small group of keyed-in performers get to have some fun. Almost all of them take a different shape in the more horror-centric third act, which retroactively makes the earlier calibrations of their performances that much more interesting.
Unfortunately, despite the surprises contained within, and the big ideas that are given lip service at the outset, the script is a mess. From moment one Outpost can’t really decide what it wants to be, and it never makes a firm decision until very late in the game. This leads to a backloaded film that plods along at a dull pace, meandering in and out of thematic material involving spousal abuse that it never quite figures out what to do with. Instead, the film abandons story for plot, and for every step forward, it takes two steps back to kinda sorta explain why any of the wilder plot beats occur. By the end, it’s nearly nonsensical, and by the time the story elements are forced to be reckoned with, it’s all so messy and illogical that there’s no angle through which they can be explored. It’s a frustrating experience because it’s clear that there’s something worth digging into here. Furthermore, it feels like the film thinks it is successfully exploring these ideas, even though there’s not much being said.
Overall, Outpost has the material for two very good, very different short films, but as a feature, the connective tissue between the two dissolves, weakening both by aiming too high.
But who doesn’t like to see ambition on this level? Kudos to everyone involved for trying to kitchen sink this thing. The impulse makes sense: getting a movie made is not easy, so why not swing for the fences when the opportunity arises? It’s an admirable spark, but even so, Outpost just doesn’t quite catch. It’s just a few rewrites short of being what it so desperately wants to be.
That said, whatever Joe Lo Truglio comes up with next is sure to be worth checking out!!
Directed by Joe Lo Truglio
Written by Joe Lo Truglio
Starring Ato Essandoh, Dallas Roberts, Beth Dover, Dylan Baker
Not Rated, 84 minutes