As was the case with his prior We Are What We Are, Jorge Michel Grau’s first English-language feature, Big Sky, is an attempt to infuse genre mechanics with thematic and character depth. Here, a classic action-thriller scenario—a brotherly criminal duo, Jesse (Frank Grillo) and Pru (Aaron Tveit), shoots up a van full of sanitarium-bound patients, but miss the agoraphobic teenager, Hazel (Bella Thorne), who eventually saves the day—becomes a more meditative vision-quest drama about a character overcoming her innermost fears and reconnecting emotionally with her mother, Dee (Kyra Sedgwick). Alas, Grau’s ambitions are stalled by a screenplay so woefully under-imagined that it apparently can’t be bothered to answer fundamental questions about the motivations of these characters: why Jesse and Pru are targeting sanitarium-bound vans in the first place, how Hazel became agoraphobic, and so on. (The one question the script does answer, about why Hazel is being sent away to a treatment facility, is explained via a clumsy monologue that screams “exposition dump.”)
Like Hazel, Pru is another mentally unstable character who needs pills to function; his relationship with his father-like brother is so obviously meant to contrast with the more fraught relationship between Hazel and Dee (incapacitated during much of the film’s running time because of a bullet lodged in her belly) that none of these characters ever come off as anything more than thematic signposts. Big Sky becomes even more risible in its second half as Hazel encounters both a mocking mirage that resembles her dead sister—who, one easily guesses despite the film’s attempt to fashion a mystery out of it, drowned in part as a result of Hazel being unable to save her—and a nutcase, Clete (François Arnaud), who’s so obviously crazy from the outset that it’s hardly a surprise that, when he brings Hazel to his supposed motorcycle, it turns out be uselessly disassembled. Perhaps more surprising, though, is his accusatory cry of “women like you” when Hazel tries to wrest herself out of Clete’s clutches; like his quoting of Aldous Huxley, it’s yet another character tic that suggests an inner life that remains frustratingly unexplored.
For his part, Grau certainly directs the hell out of this misbegotten material. Santiago Sanchez’s wide shots of the desert landscape that the heroine is forced to traverse look appropriately daunting, and the smeared edges of Bella’s point-of-view shots are just as effective in their visual depiction of her agoraphobia. And Grau’s control of pace and tone is impressive, as is the conviction he manages to inspire in his actors. But all this skill is put in the service of a creative black hole. It’s as if the filmmakers believed that all they needed to do was to toss notions of characters and themes into the air instead of actually developing them in order for us to become emotionally invested. Rarely has the chasm between sincere intentions and near-incompetent execution been so overwhelmingly vast.