The bonds of high school friendships run deep, but the baseball bro camping reunion at the center of new mystery thriller, Stillwater from director, Nino Aldi shows that things can turn deadly 15 years after graduation day. Imagine the paranoia of John Carpenter’s The Thing set in the wilderness of The River Wild and you have the killer combination that births, Stillwater.
Much like the group of friends in the film, I recently set-up a reunion with the members of my high school garage band nearly 20 years out from our last rehearsal. Unsure of how the chemistry would be after so long, soon the stories of the wild days of youth flowed freely and despite the Las Vegas setting of the meet-up, our weekend managed to avoid the frightening left turn that kicks off the action in Stillwater.
Plot: A weekend camping trip among six old friends in Northern Minnesota’s “Boundary Waters” turns tragic after one dies under mysterious circumstances, triggering further turmoil as they attempt to unmask the killer within their own group.
At first glance, the basic plot for the film feels like it could have it’s roots in an old Agatha Christie novel, but Stillwater is much more than your standard who “Whodunit” tale. Trading out a train full of mysterious strangers for reunited members of a former high school baseball team instantly raises the stakes for a murder story like this. I’m not sure how the casting process for Stillwater went down, but if you told me that these actors were friends in real life, I would believe it.
The banter between the main characters, mostly arriving in the form of playful jabs about past indiscretions, supplies us with all the relationship history we need as an audience and invests us in the horrific twists and turns to come.
The script by Nino Aldi and Joseph Rein, based on a story by Jay Ostrowski gives each member of the crew such as the ill-fated Cooper (Ryan Vincent) or cowardly Jack (Travis Quentin Young) a distinct voice and motivations, which is essential with this cast of slightly bearded 30 somethings having a frat party in the woods.
Heading the group is former team captain, Dawson, played by Tyler Ritter. The actor must be tired of hearing this, but he is the spitting image of his late father, John Ritter and if they ever decide to remake Stay Tuned or Hero At Large, genetics demand that Ritter be cast as the male lead. Acting as the voice of reason when things go south, his soft-spoken demeanor is in great contrast to the more outrageous members of the group, which helps to ground the picture.
Though Ritter gets top billing, the narrative really belongs to Paul Elia as Willie, who plays the charming podiatrist that relishes his chance to be together with old friends, but also serves as the focus of the wraparound segments involving a police interrogation. Elia is electric on screen, especially as he tries to play detective amongst his friends who are all now on the suspects list.
Adding goofy energy to the mix is Eric Michael Roy, known only by his nickname, “Leech”. A character who wears his heart on his sleeve and obviously gets the least respect from his buds. This is especially true when its revealed that Leech invited along a trio of Goth kids from their high school days led by “The Wizard” played by Mike Foy, upsetting the rest of group. The fire is put out however with the promise of the party crashers providing designer drugs for the night’s celebration.
Flanking The Wizard are two dour ladies in black, the sassy Vera played by Georgie Guinane and the more wry, Fauna played by Carlena Britch, who’s wig choice makes her look like Darryl Hannah’s rebel replicant Pris in Blade Runner by way of Joan Jett. But after the night of narcotics infused revelry, Dawson comes upon one of the friends dead below the campsite and the tension among the pines immediately hits a fever pitch.
I must point out the beautiful use of natural light throughout Stillwater, which makes the lakeside forest pop with color and texture. The director, Aldi also manages to use the outdoor setting to accentuate the drama of certain scenes, allowing these city dwellers to stand-in for the wild animals who would be native to the secluded surroundings.
Speaking of Aldi, the director also gives a fine performance in front of the camera as Richie, a vet who can’t quite leave Afghanistan behind, especially when death has entered this once mythrful environment. Looking like an angry Sean Astin, Aldi’s character is the first to point fingers and when a gun is introduced to the proceedings, is the catalyst for keeping everyone at the campsite until the killer is revealed.
Stillwater is most fascinating as it reveals the true nature, prejudices and psychological issues of the campers, as they attempt to hold onto the perceived reality of their friendship that is rapidly unraveling. As more details of the hazy night in question emerge, the group’s oft repeated mantra of, “Strength in unity, unity is strength” ultimately gives way to dissension and suspicion.
If as a viewer you like to challenge our own detective skills during a mystery film, you’ll enjoy the experience of trying to anticipate the ending of Stillwater. Truth be told, given the clever script you’ll struggle to guess the outcome from scene to scene as more deaths occur and alliances flip-flop. To the filmmaker’s credit, even the multiple twist endings feel earned, with no conveniently omitted piece of information suddenly being exposed. The logic stands.
I would recommend seeking out Stillwater for it’s great performances, smart script, beautiful setting and cinematography. Though it may make you think twice about that next reunion trip with your high school friends.
Stillwater is available now on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Video and Vimeo On Demand or on blu-ray from the film’s website at www.stillwaterthemovie.com