Zachary Quinto and Jacob Elordi in 'He Went That Way' Source: Vertical

Review: 'He Went That Way' a Cruisy, Subtly Comic Thriller

Kilian Melloy READ TIME: 4 MIN.

If an erratic, vicious serial killer meets a skilled animal trainer who knows the tics and quirks of the primate mentality, who will prevail?

Writer Evan M. Wiener and director Jeffrey Darling investigate that question with subtle humor and an undertow of homoeroticism in "He Went That Way," which reaches theaters Jan. 5 before becoming available on VOD Jan. 12.

Weiner and Darling mash the story of one spree killer, Luke Karamazov, with that of another, Larry Lee Ranes, coming up with Jacob Elrodi's Bobby, a handsome all-American sort who's thumbing his way up and down across America in the summer of 1964, making his way – or so he says – back to a girlfriend with whom he's had something of a falling out.

Aimless and mentally unstable, Bobby seems on the verge of a violent encounter with a mechanic somewhere in the desolate reaches of the Southwest when he's offered a ride by the mild, slightly halting Jim, played by Zachary Quinto (and presumably based on animal trainer Dave Pitts, who really did work with a chimp called Spanky, and who really did pick up a hitchhiking Ranes).

What Jim doesn't know is that Bobby has got a gun and he's willing to use it; in fact, he's killed a few people already. But what Bobby fails to realize – and us along with him – is that Jim's apparent spinelessness is in fact a knowingly strategic way of dealing with people. After all, human beings are possessed of a bestial nature underneath the trappings of civilization, and not everyone needs to meet aggression with aggression; some people are gifted with an understanding of how to soothe even the wildest of untamed spirits.

Jim comes by such insights as a matter of vocation. He's an animal trainer on his way from Los Angeles, where he's had a career in the entertainment industry, to Chicago, where he has a mysterious "gig" to attend to. The gig – and Jim's showbiz career – hinge on Spanky, a chimpanzee Jim has stowed in a cage in the back of his car. When Bobby produces the gun and relieves Jim of his ring and wallet, that's not the end of their association; it's just the beginning. As the next several days unfold and the strange road trip the two are on progresses, a power game of dominance, cunning, and brutality will play out.

And yet, it's not quite an S&M scenario or a fatal attraction. Yes, there's a spark between the men; Bobby hints more than once at his impression that Jim is a gay man, possibly smitten with him for rather than despite is dangerous qualities, and yet Bobby seems fascinated by and attracted to Jim. Quinto, meantime, leans into a kind of sexual ambiguity, bringing a lisp to Jim along with a manner that seems soft beyond gentleness; it's no wonder that even motel managers with a sideline in knives might try, in one ham-handed way or another, to "straighten" him out. Jim, we eventually come to know, is married to a woman named Esther, but she's a phantom presence – a voice on the phone who's eventually brushed aside and forgotten as more interesting twists come along.

But Jim has a fearless quality, as well, perhaps because he understands the workings of the primitive mind with its triggers to aggression and its routes to appeasement and calm. The two men strike a bargain that feels, more than anything else, designed to allow them to spend more time together: Trouble-free passage to Chicago for Bobby, and, for Jim, his wallet and ring returned and his life spared. But is this a deal with the devil, and if so who, exactly, will turn out to have been the diabolical one all along?

No sooner has the thought crossed one's mind than Jim takes the two of them on a side trip to visit a sketchy "priest" who's living in the middle of nowhere with what seems to be an underage girl. He's just one of a number of people whose paths glancingly cross those of Jim and Bobby; a pair of teen sisters follow, as does an unlucky short-order cook in a greasy spoon. Chaos swirls in Jim and Bobby's wake, and violence seems as ready to erupt between them as some sort of sexual tryst. One minute there's roadside choking on the menu; the next sees fashion tips dispensed, along with wardrobe, in a gas station men's room. Somehow, the film maintains its slightly jokey, more than slightly menacing mood, and finds its way to a destination that feels earned, if somewhat too much of a punchline. The fact that all this is happening along Route 66 simply underscores the film's cruisy undertone.

"He Went That Way" opens in theaters Jan. 6 and premieres on VOD Jan. 12.

by Kilian Melloy , EDGE Staff Reporter

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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