Film Review: Bullitt CountyA bachelor party tour of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail goes horribly awry in the absurd thriller 'Bullitt County.'
Seemingly trying with indie thriller Bullitt County to pull off a reverse Deliverance, writer-director David McCracken sends a Vietnam vet and three of his fun-seeking friends deep into the Kentucky woods, where they become the victimizers rather than the victims. Trading “Dueling Banjos” and gut-wrenching tension for haphazard plotting and an impromptu group singalong of an original folk tune, the results are disappointing on a number of levels.
The plot kicks off promisingly enough with friends Robin (Jenni Melear) and Keaton (McCracken) kidnapping their soon-to-be-married buddy Gordie (Mike C. Nelson) for a reunion tour of distilleries along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Set in 1977, it’s been ten years since the pals last blazed the trail, in which time not only did Gordie get engaged, but he survived a brief but bloody stint in combat during the Tet Offensive.
Like so many vets, Gordie returned a different man than when he left, although his friends have no idea just how much he was affected by his harrowing proximity to war and death. The threesome, with Gordie’s English buddy Wayne (Napoleon Ryan) in tow, embark on their booze tour with only fun and friendly catching up on their agenda, yet clearly some dark corner of Gordie’s mind remains stuck in the past. He reveals hints of his instability when he escalates an encounter with a jerk at a bar to a dramatically violent degree, and that’s before they’ve reached a single distillery. As a matter of fact, Gordie’s given up alcohol since last he saw his friends, so a tour of the bourbon trail was ill-advised from the start.
Stopping in the tiny Bullitt County town where they launched their original 1967 tour, Gordie enjoys a much friendlier encounter at a local antiques shop with a young woman, Carolyn (Alysia Livingston), whom he met a decade ago when she was just a girl. Their innocent flirtation over reminiscences is both well-played by Nelson and Livingston, and a poignant indication of the happy-go-lucky Gordie that once was.
Alas, Gordie and Carolyn’s sweet moment together yields little more than the necessary exposition to move the plot to its second act, as she tells him of a legendary cache of cash buried somewhere on the land of the county’s namesake family. That, of course, is where Gordie and company decide to camp out for the night, while searching for the hidden money. They’re discovered trespassing by the older couple who now own the land, the Mr. and Mrs. (the estimable Richard Riehle and Dorothy Lyman), who invite the foursome into their home for a home-cooked meal. Against no one’s better judgment, the treasure hunters accept the invitation—bad idea. Friendly conversation leads to angry accusations. Out comes a WWI-era, Army-issue rifle, then a six-shooter pistol, and soon the bloody battle begins.
To McCracken’s credit as screenwriter, when deadly violence finally does erupt, it doesn’t come from the expected source, but that matters little, as almost nothing that follows feels particularly credible or makes much sense. Also, McCracken tosses in flashbacks to a prior deadly encounter involving Gordie, Robin and Keaton, but the actors’ ten-years-earlier wigs and makeup actually make them appearthe same age, if not older, so the time-jumping merely complicates the narrative.
This sort of American horror story demands a strong sense of time and place that’s lacking here in the locations (shot in rural Indiana), the accents, the overwrought score and the awkwardly staged action. Take, for instance, that Gordie and company head to what is supposedly the Bullitt family land, and, without a map or stated plan or any sense at all of where to locate this buried booty, they just start digging in the middle of the woods. In every regard, these tourists make for extremely sloppy criminals, although Nelson, who starred in McCracken’s earlier award-winning short Ostrichland, acquits himself well, despite the uneven script. So does Melear as the crew’s lone woman, who’s starkly aware that she’s living in “a violent man’s world.”
As the bullets start flying, the bodies start dropping, and the friends turn on each other, McCracken gooses the action with self-conscious camera moves, jump cuts and split-screen editing apparently motivated more by style than by storytelling intent. At least the film slides into a reasonably intriguing final act, when it turns out that one of the foursome might have, rather unbelievably, located the buried cash but kept the discovery secret from their comrades. But it all culminates in a twist ending that audiences should see coming and that adds not much to the film’s ultimate emotional or narrative impact.